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Kimchi Used to be WHITE – The Evolution of Kimchi


What comes to your mind when you think about Korean food? Among many possible candidates, Kimchi will surely be on the list. This tangy and spicy fermented side dish made of vegetables with a variety of seasonings has become an inseparable part of the Korean lifestyle, to the point where they view it as part of their identity (heck, it even has “Kim” in it).

Three Kingdoms and their traditional costumes (Baekje, Goguyreo, Shilla) (Source)

Three Kingdoms and their traditional costumes (Baekje, Goguryeo, Shilla) (Source)

According to studies about the origin of Kimchi, their camaraderie dates back as far as the Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, Shilla) period (57 BC to 668 AD)[i], when it was in its primitive form as pickled vegetables optimized for long term storage.

During the time, its name was ji, meaning “pickled”, and during the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), it was first called chimchae and timchae, which literally means “submerging vegetables under salt water”, and later became dimchae. Finally, it evolved into kimchae through palatalization, and became Kimchi[ii](Charles Darwin must be so proud)!


What color is Kimchi? Well, if you said red (who wouldn’t?), it must be because that the type of Kimchi we encounter most frequently is the red hot baechu (napa cabbage) Kimchi and Kkakdugi (cubed raddish Kimchi). As you might have guessed, this symbolic red color comes from gochugaru (chili powder or red pepper powder) which is liberally used as a seasoning.


kkakdugi (source)


gochugaru (source)

For this reason, it might come as a surprise that Kimchi wasn’t all that fiery back in the old days! In fact, it wasn’t until the late 16th century or the early 17th century that Korea was introduced to this now-ubiquitous ingredient – it was the Japanese who brought it  during their failed invasion attempts during 1592-1598 (it was, however, considered toxic for about 200 years and couldn’t earn a spot in the kitchen).

Siege of Pyongyang Castle, 1593

Siege of Pyongyang Castle, 1593

515x300Only at the beginning of the 19th century did they start incorporating it as one of the main ingredients, and with the invention of tong baechu (whole cabbage) Kimchi in the early 1900’s, it started to look like the ones we see today. (until this time, raddish was the most popular ingredient).[iii]

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