Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Oh holy kimchi

How better to start off this blog than by writing about kimchi. Kimchi is considered by most to be the national dish of Korea, some even going as far as to name it as the one thing that is representative of Korea.

This ‘some’ that I speak of are the elementary and middle school students at the private academy where I currently teach English in Seoul, South Korea. When asked to write a journal entry about what they thought represented Korea best, an overwhelming number of them picked kimchi.

They didn’t write about how tasty of a dish it was, however; every single one of them wrote about the health benefits. Now as a child of 8 or 9 years old, I certainly do not remember being concerned about the nutritional content of what I was eating, let alone writing in my diary about it. When I was 8, my chief concern when it came to food was how to convince my mom to start buying “Fruit-by-the-Foot” for my lunch; probably one of the least nutritious snacks of the 90’s (don’t be fooled by the “fruit”).

What is kimchi, anyways?

Before I go any further, I should probably explain what kimchi is, and what it is, at the most basic level, is fermented vegetables. Cabbage is the most common form, but radish, cucumber and other vegetables are also used. Of course, you can’t discount the various seasonings, often spicy, that are used in its production as well.

Kimchi is eaten with virtually every traditional meal as a side dish, and when I say ‘every meal’, I mean it. My little ones (6 and 7 year-olds) tell me that they eat kimchi every day for breakfast along with their morning rice (they didn’t understand what cereal was even after a lengthy explanation). And no Korean astronaut would dare venture into outer space without his daily dose of kimchi: ‘space kimchi’ was developed for the first Korean astronaut to take into space with him.

Koreans are infinitely proud of this dish (heck, they even have an entire museum devoted to kimchi here in Seoul), if not sometimes disillusioned about it, (some of my students think everyone knows and loves kimchi, and I, for one, had never even heard of it before coming to Korea).

Is this pride justified? It’s definitely an acquired taste…do the health benefits check out? (At least one of the students wrote about kimchi “curing cancer”. I can’t imagine that that one’s true, although, according to the marvelous world of Wikipedia, one study found that chickens infected with avian flu recovered after eating the same bacteria as that found in kimchi…hmmmm…) (1).

What’s living in your kimchi….?

Although maybe not the most obvious nutritional characteristic of kimchi, being a slight microbiology nerd, (and I really mean slight), I looked into the microbial content of kimchi. I knew lactic acid bacteria was typical in the fermentation process, but what I didn’t know is that kimchi has a lactic acid bacterium all of its own, Lactobacillus kimchii sp. This species has been shown to have antimicrobial activity, i.e. stop or decrease the growth of microorganisms, especially the bad, pathogenic, disease-causing ones and those involved in spoilage (2). Bacteria can be on our side too despite its wicked reputation! Not only do lactic acid bacteria fight the bad guys, but they have also been shown to modulate the immune system (i.e. balance it out), lower cholesterol levels, and have been shown to be involved in anticancer activities (maybe my little ESL friend wasn’t so far off after all…) (3).

The basics

So enough on the bacteria, and let’s move on to the basics. I read in a study that Korea has the highest vegetable intake in all of Asia, 40% of which is through ingestion of kimchi (4). This shows you just how important it is to a Korean diet.

Here are some of the basics:

(These are very general, of course, as there are many different kinds of vegetables used in kimchi.)

· High in fiber

§ (Helps keep you “regular” and takes bad cholesterol with it when it leaves the body)

· Low in fat

· Excellent source of Vitamin C

§ (Used in the formation of collagen, a component of the skin, bone etc. and is an antioxidant, i.e. protects certain cells in your body from attack)

· High in thiamin (Vitamin B1)

§ Important in metabolism as well as in the formation of neurotransmitters)

· High in riboflavin (Vitamin B2)

§ (Also important in metabolism)

· High in calcium

§ (Extremely important mineral: is the structure behind your bones and teeth and is involved in muscle contraction, nerve functioning, blood clotting, blood pressure…and the list goes on)

· High in iron

§ (Involved in proteins that carry out oxygen transport…you may have heard of hemoglobin…and plays a major role in the immune system) (5)

Overall, it’s a pretty healthy little dish, especially one that, if you’re Korean, you’re probably eating two or three times a day. Not so surprising then that kimchi was named as one of the “World’s Healthiest Foods” by Health magazine (6).

So maybe it’s a good idea to do like the Koreans do, and not only replace “cheese” with “kimchi” when posing for photos, but start using it to add a little spice to your meals. Eating it multiple times a day may be a bit much at first, but kimchi is a healthy addition to any boring meal, and will probably leave you with a lot more to smile about than cheese.

See Wikipedia’s kimchi page for some interesting external links if you’d like to read more (!


(1) Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2010. Kimchi. Access date: June 23, 2010.

(2) Yoon JH et al. 2000. Lactobacillus kimchii sp. nov., a new species from kimchi. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 50: 1789-1795.

(3) Park HD and Rhee CH. 2001. Antimutagenic activity of Lactobacillus plantarum KLAB21 isolated from kimchi Korean fermented vegetables. Biotechnology Letters 23: 1583-1589.

(4) Lee MJ, Popkin BM and Kim S. 2002. The unique aspects of the nutrition transition in South Korea: the retention of healthful elements in their traditional diet. Public Health Nutrition 5(1A): 197-203.

(5) Korean Embassy. 2000. Food in Korea. Access date: June 25, 2010.

(6) Health Media Ventures, Inc. 2010. World’s Healthiest Foods: Kimchi (Korea). Access date: June 28, 2010.


  1. Wow great research. So in depth!

  2. Love your posts Tess! I'm glad your on the food train! I, myself have tried Kimchi (in Halifax from some Korean students at SMU) and was pretty impressed. Down with cheese-up with Kimchi!
    Kim Mac in YK

  3. Hey Kim! I'm surprised you were impressed with your first taste of kimchi...I hated it when I first tried it, but honestly, I crave it like crazy now! I don't know what I'm going to do when I get back to Canada! Thanks for reading!