Kimchi is one of the most widely eaten fermented foods, mainly consumed on a daily basis in South Korea.
Nowadays, a growing number of people across the world are learning of the health benefits of fermented foods, also known by “cultured” or “probiotics”, for gut health.
However, many people are reluctant to add such a strongly flavored condiment to their food without knowing more about it.
What does kimchi taste like? Is it really as good as the rumors suggest?
What Exactly is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a fermented side dish that originates in South Korea.
Although kimchi is new to the Western palate, it is a traditional Korean dish that has been eaten consistently for hundreds or even thousands of years.
According to the Journal of Ethnic Foods, Koreans have been eating some form of spicy fermented cabbage for around 1500 years.
Kimchi is a mixture of vegetables, usually including cabbage, mixed with spices such as garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and salt.
Seafood such as fish sauce is usually added as well.
This mixture is put in a clay pot and allowed to ferment and pickle for several months.
Kimchi likely began as a way to preserve summer vegetables for the winter.
What Does Kimchi Taste Like?
Depending on factors like how much sugar or salt is added and how long it is fermented, Kimchi will yield varying tastes.
If fish is used, which it usually is, in the form of anchovies, fish sauce, or fish paste, it will produce a robust umami flavor.
Umami is a strong savory flavor found in red meat and soy sauce.
When fish is not used, it will have a lighter and fresher taste.
A spicy Kimchi version can be created by using more or less red pepper. The red pepper is crushed into a powder, giving the kimchi its distinct red color.
Different vegetables will result in highly contrasting tastes.
Cabbage renders a very strong flavor, whereas radishes add a peppery spicey zest, unlike the spice from the red pepper, and cucumbers give a lighter, more refreshing flavor.
Garlic is often used in Kimchi for the deep and complimenting flavor it provides.
Its taste will become stronger the longer the Kimchi sits in fermentation.
Last, kimchi can be somewhat sweet.
The breakdown of complex carbohydrates in the vegetables creates sugars. In addition, some recipes include added sugar, which can give it a decidedly sweet taste.
The bacteria that ferment the kimchi turn some of this sugar into lactic acid, but some sugars can remain.
Taste: Sweet or Salty?
As mentioned, Kimchi can be made sweet or salty depending on how much of either is added.
This is why you will get conflicting opinions on how it tastes sweet or salty. Each batch can be much different in taste than the next.
One flavor characteristic that doesn’t change with each recipe is its distinct sour tang.
The is something that all fermented dishes have in common!
The reason for this is because the bacteria produce lactic acid during the fermentation process and the resulting component known as sauerkraut.
At the end of the day, Kimchi, when talking about it in general terms to describe every way it can be prepared, has complex and differing tastes.
The texture of Kimchi can be a pleasant surprise to the palate for new tasters.
After the veggies are salted, they become soft and tender. Also, the salt causes osmosis to start, which prevents any harmful germs from getting in, while also growing beneficial germs.
Meanwhile, the lactic and amino acids are being produced.
This all leads to a very unique texture and taste!
How Kimchi Is Eaten
Kimchi is used in a variety of ways, but it is rarely eaten alone.
It is used as an ingredient in many Korean recipes but most commonly as a condiment and side dish, known in Korean as banchan.
According to food writer Andrea Sung of The Migrant Kitchen, banchan is an essential part of every Korean meal.
Korean meals include rice, main dishes, and a variety of strongly flavored banchan that enhance the taste of the rice.
Kimchi is used as an ingredient in several traditional Korean foods. Kimchi pancakes remain a popular and easy treat throughout the Korean peninsula.
Kimchi stew is also popular as a cold weather meal.
In the Western world, kimchi has begun to be used in an increasing variety of ways. It is also being used in tacos, pizza, sandwiches, and other American favorites.
Any food that can benefit from a salty, spicy kick can be complemented by kimchi.
There is no wrong way to eat kimchi.
You can add it to any food that needs an additional savory element or more complex flavors.
Although kimchi is rich in flavors, it is not high in calories.
A half cup of this spicy dish has just 15 calories. It is an extremely low calorie way to add flavor and spice to healthy foods.
Because it is loaded with vegetables, kimchi is also high in essential nutrients.
It is an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C, K and it has high amounts of fiber. In addition, it contains the minerals potassium and calcium, as well as magnesium.
The Western diet is low in magnesium, so many people can benefit from eating a little more kimchi.
The Korean red pepper used to produce kimchi is rich in capsaicin, a spicy red compound that is increasingly being used as natural medicine.
The gut contains trillions of living healthy bacteria, known as “microbiota”, or the “gut microbiome“.
These good bacteria, when kept in balance inside of the gut, neutralize any bad or harmful bacteria that enter in as well. These healthy “gut flora” as they are also known by, diminish as you age.
Kimchi, along with other cultured foods such as;
- dark chocolate
- a wide array of pickled fruits and veggies
and more, are all great fermented food options to keep your gut flora in balance.
In turn, you will yield the benefits of a stronger, more reliable immune system.
Simply eating Kimchi or other cultured food varieties may help lower your risk of disease, infections, improve your digestion, lower your risk of chronic illnesses or even simply the common cold and acne.
In addition; since the gut holds neurons within its lining, it is regarded as the second brain, and for this reason, preserving the microbiome of your gut by consuming Kimchi may also help to prevent mood disorders, mental illness, and neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia.
Possible Side Effects
Taking cultured and fermented foods, or “probiotics”, has many benefits that far outweigh any possible negatives.
However, there can be, in rare instances, minor side effects that tend to only affect a very small percentage of people.
Some of the most notable side effects recorded of taking cultured foods or probiotic supplements are unpleasant digestive symptoms such as temporary gas or bloating.
Specifically, yeast-based probiotics may cause mild constipation and an increase in thirst.
These rare side effects will typically go away on their own within a few weeks time.
Starting with smaller doses of probiotic supplements or small servings of cultured foods, gradually increasing over a few weeks time will help to avoid these issues. If these side effects continue past a few weeks, it is advised to contact a doctor!
Biogenic amines & histamine
Certain cultured foods contain something called biogenic amines.
Biogenic amines are produced when any food that has protein is aged or fermented by bacteria.
Amines may trigger the central nervous system, decreasing or increasing blood flow or causing headaches in people who are sensitive to amines.
Due to the presence of the specific subtype of bacteria, an increase of histamine inside of the digestive tract can occur.
This causes blood vessels to dilate and deliver more blood supply to the problem area.
When this happens, the area becomes red and swollen and sometimes causes allergies like itching, difficulty breathing, a runny nose, or watery eyes.
Cultured probiotic foods like Kimchi, depending on the brand, may contain allergens like yeast, soy, eggs, and other dairy products.
Therefore, anyone who has allergies to any of these ingredients should look for fermented foods that do not have these in them or make their own.
Milk, sugar, and lactose are also possible allergens to watch out for when looking for different Kimchi products.
On top of the probiotics inside of fermented food, there may also be prebiotics.
Prebiotics like lactulose, inulin, and oligosaccharides are not meant for human digestive systems, but the bacteria can consume them.
Both probiotics and prebiotics together are called synbiotics. Some people say that they experience gas and/or bloating when taking synbiotics.
Although probiotics help to boost the immune system for most people, a very small number of individuals may get an infection when the bacteria or yeast from a fermented food enters the bloodstream.
This group of susceptible people typically includes those with already suppressed immune systems, individuals who were hospitalized for prolonged periods, those who have venous catheters, or people who undergone very recent surgeries.
In clinical studies, the risk of developing an infection is found to be extremely low and no serious infections have been reported.
I just love Kimchi taste and it is definitely my favorite fermented food.
- It has a complex and customizable flavor and varying choices of recipes, using different kinds of vegetables and spices, with fish or no fish, meaning it has a taste for everyone, vegetarians and meat eaters alike.
- As mentioned, the risks associated with Kimchi and other cultured foods, although extremely rare, need to be taken note of, especially if you have any serious health conditions such as severe acute pancreatitis or previously weakened immune systems.
- Buy kimchi from an authentic Korean brand to enjoy its true flavor
- Use as a condiment or side dish
- Store according to the instructions on the jar
- Start slowly to reduce the minor bloating that can come from new probiotic foods
Read more: Why do walnuts taste bitter?