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Kimchi 101 - Taste, Recipe, Buyers Guide & More

Researched and Written by:
Richelle Godwin, RDN Richelle Godwin, RDN Jenna Swift, APD Dietitian Jenna Swift, APD Dietitian

Thousands of years ago, on a bleak, frozen landscape on the Korean Peninsula, some very wise traditional people figured out a way to preserve vegetables - their main source of nutrition during the long, brutal winters. Little did they know their fermented vegetable dish would eventually become a much loved staple of fridges, food trucks and farmers markets. Not just in Korea, but thanks to the 1988 Soul Olympics...all over the world. This is the story of...kimchi.

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      Kimchi is one of the trendiest foods right now, thanks not only to its unique flavor profile and versatility in the kitchen, but also because of its many health benefits. 

      And if you’re “kimchi-curious”, you’re in for a treat…. because myself and our research team at Essential Stacks decided to dive deep into the research and take you on a journey into the world of kimchi.

      What is Kimchi?

      So at its most basic, kimchi is generally seen as a mix of fermented cabbage and radishes, plus some flavorings and spices.  Meaning it is like a hot and sexy version of sauerkraut.  

      But the crazy thing is kimchi can be made with a wide variety of vegetables, not just cabbage or radishes.

      In fact, would you believe it...in Korea there are more varieties of kimchi than surnames !  What a stat, right!

      Baechu is the most popular type of kimchi in both Korea and abroad.
      The main ingredient in it are napa or Chinese cabbage, as well as radish, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, scallions & red chili.

      Interestingly though, for most of its life, kimchi wasn't actually spicy.  In fact, up until about the 17th century, kimchi didn’t even include ingredients like chili peppers, since these were only found in the New World.  

      What does Kimchi taste like?

      So I have some kimchi right here and I’ll take a quick bite so I can explain the flavor to you.

      It’s spicy.  It’s sour.  It’s even got some sweet and savory notes to it.  And oh yeah, a little bitterness to round it all out.  

      In other words, it is hitting many different flavor profiles…. meaning it’s really tasty. 

      And so unsurprisingly 95% of Koreans eat kimchi at least once a day, with around 60% eating it with every meal!   

      Now, with all of that said, not everybody is going to like the taste of kimchi. And I can’t guarantee that you are going to like it at first bite. 

      But considering the health benefits of it, kimchi is something that you might want to try a FEW times before you judge it too much.

      To help you fall in love with kimchi, later in the video I’ll look at the best ways to incorporate kimchi into your diet.

      How is Kimchi made?

      Before I became a registered dietitian, I never thought I’d ever utter the words “fascinating” & “cabbage” in the same sentence.

      But when you learn how kimchi was Traditionally made & the biochemistry that’s at work, there’s no other way to describe it. 

      Come geek out with me for a second…

      So, in ancient Korea, during the fall months, cabbage and radish were salted and then buried underground in big ceramic pots, called “onggi”.  And the ancients did this so the vegetables were able to survive the freezing winter temperatures. 

      Now the really cool thing...they discovered this preservation process...something born out of necessity...not only prevented their primary source of winter sustenance from going bad, but it actually brought it to life. 

      Obviously, at the time they couldn’t identify exactly what was happening.  
      But as we know these days, it turned out the bacteria and yeast naturally found ON cabbage could feast on the sugars IN the cabbage, to create an army of bacteria buddies.  

      Meaning, unlike other fermented foods like kombucha or kefir, which require a starter like a SCOBY or kefir grains, kimchi can spontaneously ferment by itself.  How cool!  

      And today, all these thousands of years later, people are still making kimchi the same way.

      Only difference is that now, thanks to modern convenience, you don’t have to suffer weird looks from your neighbor while burying heads of napa cabbage in your backyard.  

      Instead, you can simply pop your salted cabbage and radishes into a mason jar and ferment them in your pantry. 

      By the way, if you are a bit of a fermentation freak like me, and want to see how kimchi compares to all the other fermented foods (like kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut), then check out our Fermented Foods Compared tool.

      You’ll love this tool, because you can finally... 

      • Work out whether kimchi is really good for you.
      • See exactly how kimchi stacks up against other fermented foods in terms of health benefits AND probiotic content!
      • Plus you can learn our quick and simple way to make kimchi at home.

      Best ways to enjoy kimchi

      Like with sauerkraut and most fermented foods, kimchi is best enjoyed cold, to ensure the beneficial microorganisms are kept alive when you eat it.

      So the #1 way to eat kimchi is as a small side dish to accompany any savory meal. 

      You can add it to your breakfast of eggs.  Your lunch of fish.  Or your dinner of pork. 

      Another great way to eat it - especially for those of you who find it a bit overpowering by itself - is as a condiment.  Kimchi in wraps, tacos or sandwiches for example, is amazing!  

      And if you’ve ever eaten a Korean-Mexican taco at one of Roy Choy’s Ko-gee trucks, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

      Now, if you want to enjoy kimchi heated up, that’s fine - and IF you can add it in at the very Last stage of cooking... you’ll minimize the amount of probiotics that get destroyed from heat. 

      Two of my favorite ways to eat kimchi HOT are adding it to soups or stews, or using it in stir frys.  

      Perhaps the best thing with kimchi, is that if you don’t use it all up straight away, it can be stored for about 3 months in your fridge.   Any longer and it can become too sour and soft to enjoy.

      What to watch out for when eating kimchi?

      Like sauerkraut, the first thing to watch out for when starting your kimchi journey is SALT.

      You see generally speaking, 1 cup of kimchi =will contain roughly 500 mg of sodium.  

      And given the Recommended daily intake is 2,000 mg, this can be something to watch out for, especially if you’re on a low salt diet. 

      The next big thing to consider is that kimchi - like many fermented foods - contains some FODMAPs, which are fermentable carbohydrates that can IRRITATE the gut for those of us with IBS.  

      The main culprit being the sugar alcohol, mannitol.  

      So if your gut is sensitive to this, stick to the recommended serving size from Monash University, which is a third of a cup of kimchi. 

      Meanwhile, for those of you who experience reflux occasionally, be mindful of whether the chili content in kimchi impacts your symptoms.  

      Now, there are other issues to consider when deciding whether to eat kimchi - such as Shellfish or fish allergies if shrimp paste or fish sauce is used in the recipe, or even Histamine or tyramine intolerances - and if you want to dive deeper into the potential issues, check out our Fermented Foods Compared tool. 

      How much Kimchi should you eat?

      Assuming you don’t suffer from any of the issues we just looked at, you are free to eat kimchi to your gut’s desire.  

      In fact, Fermentation process creates bacteria and enzymes that actually makes the cabbage easier to digest! 

      So if you’ve had issues with raw cabbage or radishes in the past, kimchi might just be a winner for your digestive system.  But like with most things, if you’re just starting out...go slow.  As this is important for giving your microbiome TIME TO ADJUST to all the new good bacteria coming its way. 

      By contrast, if you go too hard too soon, you can experience bloating, gas and other digestive distress.

      So to keep things simple:

      • Week 1 = 1 tablespoon/day
      • Week 2-7 = 2 tablespoons/day
      • Week 8 onwards = 4 ounces or 120 g/day

      The Buyer’s Guide To Kimchi

      If you’re going to buy kimchi from the store, there’s a few important things to keep in mind. 

      First, heat and pasteurization are to kimchi, what kryptonite is to superman. Meaning, they can Destroy the superpowers in kimchi, being primarily the beneficial lactic acid bacteria. 

      Unfortunately, many brands of store-bought kimchi ARE pasteurized and you’ll find them in the Dry food aisles of your supermarket. 

      By contrast, the unpasteurized kimchi- brimming with billions of good bacteria - are found in the Refrigerated section. So stick to the fridges when buying your kimchi.

      The next big thing to look out for is the Ingredients list  of the kimchi.  
      As we looked at earlier in this video - Kimchi usually contains cabbage and radishes, along with other WHOLEFOOD ingredients like Carrots, garlic, fish sauce, & chili.  

      No highly processed or artificial ingredients. 

      Now, some brands will get a little fancy and include other healthy ingredients like Cucumbers, mustard and even anchovies.  And they are all fine. 

      But what you do NOT want to see on the label is Vinegar or sodium benzoate, as this would suggest the product has been preserved in a way that would kill good bacteria.

      Conclusion

      Now that you know more about kimchi, I’m sure you’ve got a few questions, like…
      • How do I make my own kimchi at home?
      • Or does kimchi actually live up to the health benefits you’ve read about online?
      Well, to find the answers you’re looking for, check out our free Fermented Foods Compared tool - where our team of registered dietitians and researchers compare kimchi against kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and a host of other fermented foods. 

        Evidence Based

        An evidence hierarchy is followed to ensure conclusions are formed off of the most up-to-date and well-designed studies available. We aim to reference studies conducted within the past five years when possible.

        • Systematic review or meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
        • Randomized controlled trials
        • Controlled trials without randomization
        • Case-control (retrospective) and cohort (prospective) studies
        • A systematic review of descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method studies
        • A single descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method study
        • Studies without controls, case reports, and case series
        • Animal research
        • In vitro research

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