What Does Kimchi Taste Like?

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Have you ever been to a Korean restaurant? If so, then you probably noticed a dish called “kimchi” on the menu. Perhaps you’d never heard of it before, but kimchi has been a staple food in Korean households for many decades.

Kimchi comes in many different varieties, which means that its taste can vary widely. It tends to be sour because it is a fermented food, but you also may notice sweet, spicy and umami notes as well. Considered an acquired taste, you might be a bit put off by kimchi at first, but keep trying it. Chances are good that this dish will evolve into something you can’t do without.

What Is Kimchi?

This is a traditional Korean dish that has many uses. You might use it as a condiment, a dip, a side dish or even an ingredient in another dish. Basically, kimchi is an incredibly versatile food that can be used to complement any meal.

Countless recipes for kimchi are regularly in use, but most of them involve a mix of vegetables with garlic, chili peppers, salt, ginger and fish sauce. Cooks combine all of the ingredients, then pickle and ferment the kimchi. Initially, kimchi was created as a means of preserving vegetables for the cold winter months. Cabbage is the most common and traditional vegetable choice in the dish, but recipes that include cucumber, carrots, scallions and radish are relatively common.

Kimchi recipes may vary based on the season and the region in which they were created. If you like, you can make a vegan version of kimchi that does away with the fish sauce.

You can probably find commercially sold kimchi in most American grocery stores, especially if the store has an Asian or Korean section. However, it’s worth taking a chance on making your own too. This gives you a chance to experiment with different flavors and use only those ingredients that you prefer.

Fermented Foods

Kimchi is a fermented food, which means that most of its flavor and even its nutritional value develop during fermentation. This is a widely used process by which cheese, wine, beer and bread are produced. Fermentation also can produce beneficial bacteria known as probiotics, which are contained in kimchi.

Essentially, fermentation refers to a metabolic process through which living organisms consume starch, sugar and other carbohydrates. Acid or alcohol is produced by this process. 

Before refrigeration was widely available, fermented foods offered a safe and effective way to preserve the produce harvested in the summer. Foods that are fermented have high levels of vitamins, minerals, beneficial acids and probiotics.

The specific fermentation process that is involved with making kimchi is known as lactic acid fermentation. No oxygen is required in this anaerobic process through which sugar is converted into lactic acid. It is specifically this lactic acid that gives kimchi its distinctive sour taste.

Making kimchi is pretty easy as it only involves mixing the ingredients and then sealing them up. The bacteria then get to work. Thanks to the addition of salt to the recipe, pathogenic bacteria are prevented from growing. Salt also gives a pleasing salty flavor to the finished product.

Kimchi is not the only fermented food that people have used for hundreds of years to inoculate digestive tracts with beneficial bacteria that are known to help with digestion and improve immunity.

Here are some examples of fermented food in various cultures:

  • Korea: gochujang, ganjang, doenjang and chongkukjang
  • Europe: vinegar, yogurt, kefir, kvass and sauerkraut
  • China: fermented bean curd, soy sauce, vinegar and red rice
  • Japan: tempeh, umeboshi, pickled giner, miso, tamari, soy sauce and natto.

Another example of a fermented food that is popular around the world is kombucha. Popular for many decades in Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere, kombucha is enjoying increased acceptance in the west.

Fermentation with Lactic Acid

Both kimchi and sauerkraut are made through lactic acid fermentation. This process works through a food like cabbage being submerged in brine that contains plenty of salt. The salt can destroy the bacteria that normally would be responsible for spoiling food. However, salt does not interfere with the lactobacillus bacteria that are present in cabbage and many other foods. 

Just a short time after being submerged, the bacteria begin converting carbohydrates that are contained in the vegetables into lactic acid. This substance is fantastic for preserving the kimchi and developing its characteristically tangy taste. 

Other foods that are made with lactic acid fermentation include soy sauce, ketchup, pepperoni, miso and tofu.

How Is Kimchi Used?

If you were to visit a Korean household, you would probably see kimchi being served at every meal. That’s because kimchi may be enjoyed as a side dish, a condiment or an appetizer. However, it’s also a common ingredient in many recipes.

For example, kimchi jjigae, a traditional stew, is an incredibly popular and common dish that is made using kimchi. It is ordinary to see kimchi being used in stir-fry recipes, sandwiches, pizza, noodles and fried rice.

What Does Kimchi Taste Like?

Kimchi’s flavor can perhaps best be described as complex. That’s because it can have many flavors depending upon how it is prepared and served.

Normally, kimchi’s flavor profile includes sour, sweet, spicy and umami notes. “Umami” may be an unfamiliar term, but it is considered one of the five basic tastes along with sour, salty, sweet and bitter. “Savory” is perhaps the best word to describe umami, which is a common characteristic in both broths and meats that have been cooked. Fermented products also are known for having umami flavors.

The flavor of kimchi can vary depending upon the vegetables that are used to make it, how long the kimchi was fermented and how much sugar or salt was used.

Thanks to the fermentation process, sour typically is the most noticeable flavor in kimchi. It is the lactic acid that is produced during fermentation that creates the pungent and tangy taste, which may remind some people of sauerkraut. 

If garlic was used in the kimchi recipe, its flavor will definitely intensify during fermentation. Similarly, some kimchi recipes are incredibly spicy, with the level of spiciness depending upon the type of spices and the amount used.

Kimchi that is made with fish sauce, fish paste or anchovies will have a distinctive note of umami. Of course, it is possible to make kimchi without any fish-oriented ingredient, in which the flavor profile of the finished product will be lighter and fresher.

Where You Can Buy Kimchi

Kimchi has become so popular in recent years that you can probably find it on the shelves at your usual grocery store. Look either in the section that has refrigerated produce or in the same area as the refrigerated sauerkraut and pickles. It also is fairly common for kimchi to be readily purchased at sushi bars, Asian restaurants and markets that specialize in Asian foods. 

If you have a meal in a restaurant and happen to particularly like the taste of their kimchi, be sure to ask if they sell it bottled. This is a relatively common practice. 

Of course, making your own kimchi also is an option. Only a few common components are needed, and the entire fermentation process can be completed in mere days.

How Do You Store Kimchi?

Because it is a fermented food, it is possible to safely keep kimchi in the refrigerator for many months. Even after that time period has elapsed, the kimchi is still safe to eat. However, the flavors will be more intense and pungent, and the vegetables will not be as crisp as they were in the beginning.

Flavor Profiles in Kimchi

Chances are good that if you ordered kimchi at two different restaurants, each one would provide a unique flavor experience. The same can be said if you visited two traditional Korean households.

This means that while you might love the kimchi that is served in one place, the other one may pale by comparison. That’s why it might make sense to make your own kimchi so that you can choose a recipe that emphasizes the flavors that you prefer.

Sour is perhaps the predominant flavor in most kimchi. As explained above, this sourness comes from the lactic acid that is produced during fermentation. Accordingly, pretty nearly every version of kimchi has at least an underlying sour flavor.

If you like umami tastes, then it is essential that you include some kind of fish product in your recipe. People who don’t like umami or who want to make a vegan version of kimchi simply can leave the fish sauce or fish paste out of the ingredients. 

Sweet and salty are other flavor notes that are commonly found in kimchi. While some swear that kimchi should be sweet, others favor a saltier tang. 

Spice is another flavor profile that you can play with to find a level that suits you. Some kimchi is quite mild, but other recipes are extremely spicy. The more red pepper you add, the spicier the finished product will be. It’s also the red pepper powder that is responsible for kimchi’s distinctive red coloring.

When you’re making kimchi, don’t forget the garlic. It is an imperative ingredient to giving kimchi its signature flavor. Intoxicating and deep, the garlic flavor will intensify throughout the fermentation process.

Give careful consideration to the vegetables you use as well. Cabbage has a strong flavor that will definitely make its mark in the finished kimchi. Milder flavors can be obtained with the use of cucumber or radish.

Acquiring a Taste for Kimchi

Unless you grew up enjoying kimchi on a daily basis, it is likely that this dish will be an acquired taste for you. 

What does it mean to be an acquired taste? Basically, this refers to trying a new food and initially having a neutral or negative reaction to it. Continued exposure to the food leads you to enjoy it. In other words, you have “acquired” a taste for it.

This means that whatever you first found off-putting is now acceptable. You’ve even begun to appreciate that the food you once disliked has positive benefits for you.

This describes the kimchi experience for many people. It is fairly common for many people to be put off by the overpowering smell of kimchi as well as its spicy and fermented flavors.

However, it definitely is worth acquiring a taste for kimchi, especially if you are concerned about your health. Kimchi is low in fat and calories while still delivering positive probiotics for your gut. Moreover, kimchi tends to be rich in vitamins, fiber and beta carotene.

Comparing Kimchi & Sauerkraut

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that if you like sauerkraut, you’ll probably enjoy kimchi, or vice versa. This may be true because both dishes have characteristics in common.

For example, both will add plenty of probiotics in your diet. This does not mean that these dishes are the same, even though both may be based on cabbage. While kimchi is prepared with intact stems and leaves, sauerkraut is made with the shredded heads of cabbages.

Although it is sometimes called Korean kraut, kimchi is much spicier than sauerkraut. It also may include other vegetables and a strong dose of red pepper, both of which are missing from sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut is made with dill and caraway seeds, two ingredients that are absent from kimchi, and the Korean dish will provide you with an enhanced amount of antioxidants.

Essentially, both of these foods are fermented and delicious, and adding either one of them to your diet may be beneficial to your health.

Try Adding Kimchi to Your Favorite Foods

It is surprisingly easy to start making kimchi part of your meals. Of course, you can use it as a topping or a side dish, but you also can be daring by adding it to some of your recipes.

For instance, you might make kimchi dumplings using tofu, pork or beef mixed with kimchi and wrapped in a dumpling wrapper. Steam or fry the dumplings for a delicious meal.

Mixing kimchi with tofu is another great and easy idea for a side dish or entrée. Tofu is essentially a blank slate that acquires the flavors of whatever you combine it with, giving you a unique and memorable meal.

You can also stir kimchi into your favorite pancake batter for a crunchy and savory treat or simply serve it with rice.

Learning to Love Kimchi

Now it’s your turn to start experimenting with kimchi. This versatile dish is a champ in the kitchen, and it can spice up any meal.

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