What Does Kimchi Taste Like?

It is a delicacy. It is a traditional food in Korea. A simple search on Google shows you tens of recipes that contain kimchi.

Together with technological advances, things that once were specified to one area became present in every part of the earth. Kimchi seems to be one of these cases: a Korean traditional food that knows a higher recognition with each year that passes.

What is Kimchi? And more important: What does kimchi taste like?

What does kimchi taste like?

As a fermented dish, Kimchi’s taste is sour and acid, fuzzy, due to its Lactic Acid created by Lactobacillus, a type of bacteria.

Taste and flavor become stronger as it ferments more, so these can go from mild to strong.

Those of you who have ever eaten Sauerkraut can already guess what its taste is. Some would say that they are almost the same. However, there are some differences between them we will discuss later.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish and it’s an essential part of Korean culture. You can also find it everywhere in Korean cuisine. It is made from fermented vegetables, where the main ingredient is cabbage (napa cabbage). Sometimes radish, cucumbers, or other vegetables can be used.

Kimchi main flavor

The sour flavor is the first one that you remark. Also, just like chamoy, it can have spicy, or mildly spicy, depending on the condiments used.

Traditionally, the most used ingredients are Korean chili powder, spring onions, garlic, ginger, jeotgal, salt, sugar, onions, and mustard. Also, some recipes use fish or fish sauce like shrimp, croaker, anchovies, hairtail, and jeotgal.

Main kimchi taste differs depending on the vegetable used, but also on the time it fermented. Cabbage builds a strong, pungent flavor and taste and radish/cucumber kimchi have a more mild and fresh profile.

An image of a savory kimchi dish.

All of them are usually eaten as fast as possible to enjoy their crunchy texture. If they ferment too much, they become mushy and soft.

Red pepper powder (gochugaru) brings the red color together with the hot and spicy taste. It is a complex element, being hot, sweet, and smoky at the same time. The hot taste depends on how much red pepper was used. It is usually from mildly hot to very hot!

Salt and sugar are used to extract much of the water. Salt (through osmosis) brings the mix of tastes and flavors into the veggie. Sugar impacts the final taste making it sweeter. When it is a lot, kimchi taste becomes milder and not as spicy as a regular one.

Onions, spring onions, and mustard bring that slightly pungent spicy note together with a touch of freshness.

Garlic is considered a ¨not to be missed¨ ingredient in almost every kimchi. It brings a strong and pungent aroma and taste. While the fermentation keeps going, the garlic from kimchi is also affected and this accentuates the strong and heavy smell.

Finally, fish ingredients are sometimes used to bring a strong umami flavor. It is accompanied by a fishy flavor, and depending on the type and quantity of the fish, it can be from mild to strong.

How is kimchi made?

The base recipe is very simple. You just have to cut the vegetable into chips, and then you salt them. After,  This paste is a blend of all the condiments and ingredients you use for kimchi. It is usually thick and has a strong flavor and taste.

If you are interested in thickening agents, you might want to read our recent article about cornstarch and its taste.

Then rub each cabbage piece and mix it with the paste that is gonna ferment. You leave it to ferment for 1 to 2 days at room temperature and voila: you just have made your kimchi!

Store bought kimchi comes in a lot of types. Even if it is comfortable to take it from grocery stores, its taste can not match the one you acquire at home. And I bet those who love kimchi would say that I am right! Isn’t it the same with every food?

Kimchi’s ingredients

We already talked about the most used ones. But they can be more. 

  • Different cabbages (bomdong, headed cabbage). They have a crispy texture if it’s not fermented for long. Also, it creates a pungent taste.
  • Different radishes (Korean, ponytail, gegeol radish) – A more mild and fresher taste.
  • Cilantro: Refreshing flavor and a light taste
  • Burdock roots: Bitter-sweet taste with an earthy rooty flavor (it is similar to artichoke).
  • Celery: Crunchy veggie with a strong but mild taste and flavor.
  • Eggplant: Tender texture with a mild and neutral taste.
  • Garlic chives: A great substitute for garlic when you don’t want to use cloves.
  • Pumpkin: Earthy sweet taste.

And really, the list can go on and on and on. Again, as we can also see in curry and many other dishes, imagination is the only thing that can stop you from creating the best mix.

How to eat kimchi

Kimchi is traditionally served as a side dish. However, it can sometimes be food by itself.

1. Kimchi as a side dish

As I stated at the beginning, kimchi is a traditional food in Korea. As a side, it is usually paired with steamed rice and different porridges. Due to Korea’s affinity for this fermented good, they eat it with almost everything.

2. Kimchi as a food

Different recipes call for kimchi to be fried alone or together with meats and/or veggies. In this case, caramelization and Maillard’s reaction contribute to the final taste. The sour taste combines with the savory and umami after frying. This results in a very strong and tasty dish.

An image of a person holding a bowl of kimchi.
  • Kimchi fried rice is a great example!

Egg fried rice kimchi (or just a simple kimchi fried rice) is a common food. Also, pork and chicken are usually fried and paired with kimchi. Umami flavor from meat complements the sour taste and the acidic smell.

For something not too heavy, you can make kimchi dumplings. This can be your snack before a hard day at work. Drop some soy sauce in any of these dishes and you have a very tasty meal or snack.

3. Kimchi added as an ingredient

This does not necessarily require the kimchi to be cooked. Some soups are using it for their sour taste and fizzy feeling (kimchi jjigae, a traditional stew).

Also, there are batter products (like kimchi pancake) where batter makes the taste mild and acceptable for those that don’t go hardcore in fuzzy sour foods.

History of kimchi

It is well known that fermented foods were used in that area around two ages back in time. In the past, fermentation was a way to preserve food for a long period.

After preparing the brine or paste, the food was buried in the ground to keep it cool and at a constant temperature. 

Garlic and chili peppers were not present during that period. Chilli peppers are native to America and were introduced to Asia around the 16-17’th centuries by Portuguese traders. So, kimchi was not spicy in the first place.

Since industrialization, the food industry in Korea fastly evolved and created many variations. Easy access to common goods was the main factor that led to this evolution.

Now you can find kimchi with a mild or strong sour taste. Sweet or hot. Spicy or not. Crunchy or mushy.

Kimchi vs. Sauerkraut

As I said in the beginning, while some would consider these 2 to be the same, there are some differences.

  1. Sauerkraut is usually made with green or red cabbage. It is chopped into thin long pieces. On the other hand, kimchi uses ‘cut like chips’ Napa cabbage.
  2. While both of them are fermented, they usually Sauerkraut use a restricted range of spices. It is just sour, pungent, and sometimes salty.

    Kimchi offers a wide range of tastes and a more complex flavor. Still, both taste good if you like foods with an overpowering odor.
  3. Sauerkraut takes longer to ferment. At room temperature, kimchi can be good to go in 1-2 days while Sauerkraut takes at least 5 days.

Kimchi’s nutritional benefits

I guess at some point you were asking: How can such a pungent, sour and acidic food help me?

Well, find out that it has a lot of health benefits, especially when it comes to your guts.

  • It contains probiotics. The fermentation process with the help of the bacterium Lactobacillus creates lactic acid. Lactic acid is that thing that gives the characteristic sourness.

    Like yogurt and sour cream, consumed in normal quantities, it can help with your guts and beneficial bacteria. That makes kimchi one of the healthiest meals for your digestive bacteria colony.
  • It can help by reducing inflammation. Studies on mice show us that probiotics and active compounds in fermented food can help lower inflammation levels.
  • Can help you lose weight. Fermented foods are low in calories, so they are perfect when you are on diet. This, together with better digestion, can help you lose weight.

Did you know

  • The first Korean astronaut, Yi So-Yeon, had kimchi with him in space? Not only that, but unlike the regular product you find here, the one he had was bacteria-free. It was feared the cosmic rays would mutate the bacteria.
  • For a food to be considered kimchi, it has to acquire some characteristics defined in Codex Alimentarius. This is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, and food guidelines.
  • Most Koreans have a kimchi fridge? And this is because often they make their own kimchi. In this way, it can last even for months until it spoils and goes bad. But usually, it doesn’t reach that step.

Wrapping Up

Kimchi is a strong dish, side, or snack one can have. Its pungent, strong taste and flavor may not be appealing to everyone, but you should give it a try.

Wrong! Not only one, but more! I remember hating coffee when I was a child. That bitter smoky taste was a turn-off for me, but now I can’t imagine a day without a sip of a strong, intense coffee or cappuccino.

It just makes my day, and I imagine the same happens with kimchi in every Korean house (or with any kimchi lover). 

As an acquired taste, you will learn over time to fully love and appreciate its unique taste and profile. Over time it will find its place in your grocery list or ‘to-do’ list at home.