The origins of kimchi in Korea

by on October 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm in Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Many would be surprised to discover that this seemingly traditional food was in fact first developed in the late 19th century.  Also, the most important ingredient of kimchi, red pepper, was first introduced to Korea in the early 17th century through either China or Japan.  The import of cabbage in the late 19th century from China explains the rather late emergence of cabbage kimchi.

That is from Seoul: A Window into Korean Culture, a very good book by Choi Joon-sik.

1 gwern October 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Just another benefit of the Columbian Exchange!

Millions of dead Amerindians have never tasted so good.

2 lolzlozl October 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

how silly. their deaths were foretold due to a lack of genetic diversity (founder’s effect) and no pre-selection v. zoonotic diseases.

3 John October 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm

That might be the the kind of euphemistic argument used by Middle Easterners and Africans in the future to explain the population replacement of Europeans.

4 Javier October 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Poor analogy. Middle Easterners and Africans are not invading and conquering Europe. Instead, they’re being invited by Europeans and, in particular, from descendants of the last genocide on the continent.

5 John October 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

No, it’s the correct analogy to lolzlozl’s statement that the Amerindians perished due to lower disease resistance. In both cases, groups with lower disease resistance are being replaced by groups with greater immunity.

6 Cliff October 17, 2012 at 10:11 pm

But is the disease resistance related in any way to the “replacement”?

7 Vernunft October 17, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Oooo, Camp of the Saints

8 chosun October 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Wiki disagrees: “The earliest references to pickled vegetables in East Asia is found in the Xin Nan Shan 信南山 poem of the Shi Jing (詩經), which uses the character 菹 (Korean “jeo”, Mandarin Chinese “zu”). The term ji was used until the pre-modern terms chimchae (hanja: 沈菜, lit. soaked vegetables), dimchae, and timchae were adopted in the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.[5] The word then was modified into jimchi, and is currently kimchi.
Early kimchi was made of cabbage and beef stock only. Red chili, a New World vegetable not found in Korea before European contact with the Americas, was introduced to Korea from Japan after the Japanese invasions (1592–1598) and became a staple ingredient in kimchi.[6]”

Sources 5 and 6, respectively:
(Korean) 김치의 이름(명칭) from Hankyoreh21
^ Yoon, Sook-ja. Good Morning Kimchi! Hollym International Corporation, 2005. Pg. 11

Can anyone point us to a few reliable sources that confirm Choi Joon-sik’s claims (or, perhaps, Choi’s own references on the matter)?

9 Jeff October 17, 2012 at 8:50 pm

These claims refer only to baechu kimchi, the most common, well-known type today which is made from the recent imports of red pepper and cabbage. Many other types of kimchi do indeed have much older origins.

10 john sager October 18, 2012 at 1:13 am

I read the date for the first appearance of Chinese cabbage in Korea as 1888 in Wang-shim-li in Seoul. This is from memory, but it was a Korean language book about Korean food culture.

The red pepper has long been associated with Hideoyoshi’s 1592 invasion, i.e Imjin Woeran.

11 john sager October 18, 2012 at 1:17 am

“Food Culture, Food War” (um-shik mun-hwa, um-shik jeon-jaeng)?? Something like that. The author took some of the stuff about the Columbian Exchange, and explicitly related it to Korea.

12 kiwi dave October 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I read recently sushi (at least in the forms which are known in the west) is basically a 20th Century innovation, and that tuna sashimi is more or less a post WW-II invention.

13 CBBB October 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm

A lot of common Japanese foods, especially the more common everyday stuff like Tonkatsu and Japanese curry, are more recent inventions and many are derived from Western recipes.

14 Adrian Ratnapala October 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm

The word “curry”, or even “kari” is a hint.

15 Cliff October 17, 2012 at 10:12 pm

A hint of what?

16 Kalim Kassam October 18, 2012 at 12:04 am

A hint of recent foreign origin. The work “kari” is a particularly big hint since it is written in katakana (as カレー). The book *Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors* by Lizzie Collingham touches on the history of Japanese Curry.

17 Willitts October 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm

The history of humankind has been to wander around, putting things in our mouths to see if they are edible. Much of what we know about cooking involves making foods more edible or palatable, stretching limited food supplies, and extracting every last bit of nutrition from what is apparently food waste.

Soup, for example, removes the remaining calories and nutrients from the inside and outside of bones that would otherwise be thrown away.

Most recipes are actually the result of “poverty diets”. For example, two of my favorite family meals are brisket and flank steak – two cuts of meat that are objectively inferior, but made palatable through cooking the toughness out of them and spicing up otherwise unsavory meats.

Cabbage, which is also native to the ancestral lands of me and my wife, has been altered from its natural consistency to make it merely edible, not luxurious. I suspect kimchee is similar – peasants in Korea took a cheap food source and developed ways to get people to eat it.

This is not as strange as it sounds – grab a stalk of wheat and try to eat it. Bread is the evolution of thousands of years of trying to make the inedible edible in order to survive. Other aspects of cooking, besides edibility, are storage and destruction of germs and parasites. Cooking is an amazing innovation for the survival of mankind.

18 mkt October 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Yup, and those storage issues lead directly not just to cooking but also drying (beef jerky), fermentation (yogurt, beer), smoking (smoked salmon), and salting (bacon!). Plus pickling, mold, and who knows what else.

19 DocMerlin October 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Yet another reason that food purists like Tyler who want “‘authenticity” are very goofy.

20 j r October 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Not necessarily. Tyler just probably likes to play the odds.

A very good chef can make imaginative non-traditional dishes using traditional ingredients and preparations. If, however, you don’t know anything about the chef, you’re better off finding an authentic restaurant than you are going into a watered-down version of some traditional cuisine. In other words, it’s one thing to go to Nobu, but you’re better off going to an authentic Japanese restaurant than you are going to some pan-Asian place that serves sushi, along with pad thai and kung pao shrimp.

21 Adrian Ratnapala October 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Yes. Like cockroaches, traditional cuisines are the product of evolution. Evolution needs mutations, even though most mutations are shite.

22 Ray Lopez October 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm

I’ve also heard that the fork was invented in China/Korea/Japan but chopsticks were invented later, as a way of making the royalty look sophisticated, them being harder to use than the fork (same reason Chinese characters were invented–as a barrier to entry for the scribes). Don’t know where I read this though.

23 adrian October 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I believe the Chinese kept their script, even after coming up with a system similar to Korean, for political reasons. They wanted to keep a unified empire with everyone reading in a common script. Can’t remember where I read this though.

24 mkt October 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Correct. China has several mutually unintelligible languages and dialects, and an alphabet would simply be unworkable because the pronunciations may be completely different. Even your name may have a completely different pronunciation, so a shared written language cannot use phonetic sounds. But the ideogram for your name will be the same, and thus the written language can be used widely — and even in non-Chinese countries such as Korea and Japan.

Unless Mandarin wipes out Cantonese and the other minority languages in China, the Chinese will never give up their writing system, it’s one of the the things that lets them communicate with each other.

25 So Much For Subtlety October 18, 2012 at 12:51 am

You can write Cantonese using Chinese characters in the same way you can write German using a French grammar. Chinese characters do not unite China despite everyone making this claim. The prestige of Classical Chinese, and hence the need to acquire both the written form and the grammar, do.

If you write Cantonese using standard Chinese characters, you do not produce something that can be read by northerners. Not that you can as most words in Cantonese are “un-charactered”. Which is why people in Hong Kong invent new ones or use old ones in new ways when they want to write Cantonese.

There is no difference with the Koreans or Japanese. Knowing what a character is will give you some idea of what the sentence is talking about, but to understand a Chinese sentence, you need to understand both the character’s meaning and the grammar of Classical (or modern) Chinese. Which is different from Korean or Japanese – and in fact from Cantonese and most southern dialects.

Mandarin is well on the way to wiping out Cantonese and all the other dialects. They are unlikely to survive a generation or two. Except in Hong Kong and to a lesser extent in South-East Asia. There was a huge fuss when Shanghai proposed adding Shanghainese to the underground announcements along with Mandarin and English.

26 Careless October 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Can we stop calling the various Chinese languages “dialects”? Romanian, Italian, and Spanish are much more mutually intelligible than mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien.

27 Foobarista October 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Careless, an old joke in linguistics is that a language is a dialect with an army.

28 Dave T October 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I *would* be surprised if there wasn’t already a tradition of pickling vegetables as a source of nutrients over the winter months. I am *not* surprised that those pickles don’t resemble anything like today’s deliciously spicy kimchi.

29 Tangurena October 17, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Agreed. The Japanese call their picked veggies “tsukemono”. And the Germans have sauerkraut, which, if you are to believe wikipedia, was introduced to Europe by Ghengis Khan after he picked it up in China.

30 Careless October 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Truly history’s greatest monster.

31 Blondin October 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Why is it that when I clicked on the amazon link, in the amazon search bar it is written “Choi Joon-sik/marginalrevol-20”? Is this a way of doing advertising from MR?

32 Ryan Miller October 18, 2012 at 10:12 am

No, it’s Amazon’s way of keeping track of who gets the finder’s fee (couple of %) when you buy a book.

33 Andrew' October 18, 2012 at 5:26 am

Ooooh! You are talking about Sauer-K!

34 Colin October 18, 2012 at 8:02 am

It is also worth noting that Kimchi can’t be all that old, since red pepper – at least pepper based on capsaicin – is a new world food. So it could not have really been developed much before the 1600s.

35 Slugger October 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

Pickled cabbage, whether sauerkraut or kimchi, allow the storage of a vitamin C containing food through the winter in snowy countries. Obviously, there were no citrus in eastern Europe, and I suspect that mountainous cold Korea also had limited fruit sources of the vitamin. If sauerkraut and kmichi are recent inventions, how did more ancient inhabitants of those climates get antiscorbutic foods?
I wonder if anyone has analyzed Otzi for vitamin C?

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