We select and review products independently. When you purchase through our links we may earn a commission. Learn more.

What Exactly is Kimchi? A Staple in Korean Cuisine and Must-Try

A person preparing jars of kimchi, a type of fermented cabbage.

Have you heard all the talk about this trendy Korean food? It’s time to give this Lacto-fermented vegetable dish a try. Here’s what Kimchi is, how it’s made, and why you’ll want to embrace all the spicy, sweet, salty, and sour flavors this side dish offers.

What is Kimchi?

Kimchi is a quintessential Korean dish made with a multitude of healthy ingredients including, vegetables, ginger, garlic, chili peppers, fish, and salt.

This unique and tasty mix is pickled and salted, which allows for the fermentation process to occur. There are hundreds of varieties, all, of course, depending on the region and household recipes. Here are only a few.

  • Pogi Kimchi (traditional napa cabbage kimchi)
  • Baek Kimchi (white Kimchi)
  • Yangbaechu Kimchi (green cabbage kimchi)
  • Kkakdugi (cubed radish Kimchi)
  • Pa Kimchi (green onion kimchi)

The preparation of Kimchi dates back to ancient times and is still adored in homes today. It is typically made in large quantities during fall months to prepare for the cold months ahead. This annual kimchi-making event is called gimajang.

In the United States, this side dish has become so popular that you can find it chilled in the refrigerated produce section in your local supermarket. Luckily for us, the internet also provides hundreds of traditional and non-traditional recipes for you to try.

What Goes in Kimchi?

Chopsticks picking up a small amount of kimchi, with garlic and ginger in the background.
Emilee Unterkoefler

Kimchi comes in multiple flavors, all depending on household recipes, regional characteristics, and quality of ingredients and seasoning preferences. Here are the typical ingredients used to make a traditional napa cabbage kimchi or pogi.

  • Napa cabbage
  • Korean course sea salt
  • Red chili pepper flakes
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Salted seafood
  • Fish sauce

How Does Lacto-Fermentation Work?

The process of Lacto-fermentation occurs when you submerge vegetables in a salt and water (brine) solution. When you immerse the vegetables in this salted water, the harmful bacteria are killed.

However, there are good bacteria that live through this process called Lactobacillus. Sugars and lactose (that are present in the food) are then converted into lactic acid. You are then left with tangy flavored and safely preserved vegetables.

In case you are wondering, this is different than canning. While canning and Lacto-fermentation are both preservation methods, Lacto-fermentation is not used for long-term holding.

Savory, Sweet, Sour and Spicy

What many people love most about Kimchi, are the unique and complex flavors that each bite holds. Here is what you may taste while enjoying this Korean staple.

Savory or Umami: Umami, translated to “pleasant savory taste,” often is described as having a lasting and enjoyable aftertaste. The salt and water brine create the savory flair many enjoy.

Sweet: Depending on which recipe you make, it will affect the amount of sugar added to this dish. Some are sweet and others salty.

Sour: This dish has a distinctly sour taste due to the Lacto-fermentation process used to create the dish. This tangy or tart flavor is favored by many and often described as tasting similar to sour kraut.

Spicy: This, once again, depends on the recipe you are using, but the amount of red chili pepper used, will determine whether this dish is mild or spicy.

Kimchi served in a small bowl with chopsticks and ginger and garlic in the back.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

How to Eat Kimchi

This (low in calories) side dish is best known for its wholesome ingredients and multiple nutritional benefits. It’s high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and full of live bacteria, which is excellent for digestion.

In Korea, Kimchi is served with almost every meal, as a side dish, or on its own. It’s also a popular ingredient often added to other dishes like stew, stir-fry, and noodles.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
LifeSavvy is focused on a single goal: helping you make the most informed purchases possible. Want to know more?