Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: Cabbage Kimchi

Koreans love kimchi, and regard kimchi made of napa cabbage to be the standard kind. But does that make sense? Here is a good article by Mr. Hwang Gyo-Ik, the Korean's favorite Korean food columnist.

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Koreans eat cabbage kimchi in all four seasons. There are significantly less people who make a separate batch of winter kimchi as per tradition. The market sells cabbages in all four seasons -- when kimchi runs out, people can simply buy the cabbage and make more. In fact, there is not even the need to make more kimchi. Factory kimchi is sold throughout the year, so people can simply buy it. There is not a day when the home shopping channel fails to sell napa cabbage kimchi. What easy world we live in.

It has not been long since we began eating napa cabbage kimchi like this. Napa cabbage grows at a cool temperature. Napa cabbage seeds were sown in the fall, and the cabbages were harvested in the beginning of winter. Chinese cabbages were barely available in the spring and the winter. Summer cabbages were unthinkable -- the cabbages would melt away in the heat. It was not until the 1970s when summer cabbages appeared in the market. As the highlands of Gangwon-do were cool during summer, farmers there grew cabbages. Around the same time, farmers near the southern coast attempted growing winter cabbages in the winter, enabling cabbage kimchi in the middle of the winter and early spring. Also, the cabbages grown in hothouses in the spring would appear in the market before summer cabbages from the highlands do.

In just 30 years, Koreans forgot the season for napa cabbages -- they began to regard it as available in all four seasons. As the cabbages are not being produced on their natural time of the year, there is a huge yearly variation in production. In particular, summer cabbages depend entirely on the weather of the highlands. Too much rain melts away the summer cabbages, and the market complains of exorbitant prices. One may suggest: "Don't be so dependent on the production of unseasonal summer cabbages; make kimchi with radishes [열무]." But such suggestion is immediately met with a retort: "Cabbage kimchi is essential for a Korean table." There is not a single expert who questions whether it is right for Koreans to have an eating habit that is oblivious to the seasons.

Some may ask: "How is it a bad thing that cabbage kimchi is available in all four seasons thanks to the advancement in farming technologies?" The problem, however, is that raising farm products is not simply the matter of technology. Nature is the absolute condition for growing vegetables; human technology can only supplement. There is a limit to controlling the conditions of growing farm products, and that limit eventually leads to anti-natural results. At that point, a situation may arise in which no one wins -- farmers lose, as do consumers.

Most fields on the highlands are on a hill, which means the water drains well when it rains. As the water goes, so do the soil and the organic matters in the soil. It is difficult to add organic fertilizer to a hilly field located in the highlands. Also, in most cases, the landowner and the farmer are not the same -- which means the farmer has no incentive to keep the land fertile. Simply put, farming in the highlands is predatory. Cabbages growing on infertile land based on predatory farming techniques are prone to contract finger-and-toe disease, which causes their roots to rot. Once there is an outbreak of finger-and-toe disease, all the cabbages on the highlands are good as done.

There is now a modified breed of cabbages that are resistant to the disease, called the "CR". But the CR cabbages taste bad -- the leaves are tough, lack sweetness and smells spicy. To overcome the disease, the cabbage sacrificed the taste. But as the words spread recently that CR cabbages are not tasty, more farmers are back to growing the regular type of napa cabbages. To stave off the diseases, a lot of chemical is required, sprayed practically every time after it rains.

So, the summer cabbages from the highlands are either not tasty or covered in pesticides. That's the choice that the consumer faces. Which cabbage would you eat?

맛이냐 건강이냐 그것이 문제로다: 여름배추의 진실 [Donga Weekly]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Very interesting. I was very very surprised when I was in Korea that vegetable seemed to grow regardless of the season. I couldn't judge for local veggies I wasn't used to, such as napa cabbage, but I found that for examples tomatoes or cucumbers were not always very tasty or of high quality. In France we more and more try to eat seasonal products, since it's both tastier and more respectful of the environment.
    I was wondering if this way of thinking was growing in Korea, and at the same time if organic food was popular.
    It would seem to me strange if it wouldn't, since Koreans struck me as highly concerned by their health, and especially by healthy food. (How many times did I hear "eat this, it's good for your health")

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  3. @vb if you put your kimchi in the frig right after you make it, you run the risk of fermentation not taking place. i recomend that you leave on the counter at least one day before you put it in the frig. once in the frig, fermentation will be very slow due to the cold temperature so you have to wait a long time before it is ripe. i recommend this technic if you make a large batch. as far as leaving on the counter, fermentation takes place faster depending on the room temperature. under around 75 degree, i recomend 2days after you make it but of course you should check.

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  5. Actually, unless you used less than 3 cabbages, I would just put it in the fridge -- fresh kimchi has its own merits. Slow fermentation is always preferable. It will ferment in a week. I would leave it out only if: (1) the batch is small and (2) you really, really want sour kimchi instead of fresh ones.

  6. To TK: thank you! That really clarified the process for me because I was struggling for a long time - everybody says differently. I usually use only two napa cabbages. So next time I will leave one batch in the fridge and start using in a week - I like the taste of fresh kimchi better as well:)

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