"What's all this buzz about kimchi?" a friend asked me the other day. "People are talking about the health benefits of this Korean dish." Yes, the recent buzz about kimchi is strange, because Koreans have been eating this fermented vegetable relish for at least three thousand years. It's not that kimchi is a revolutionary new food straight out of a high-tech laboratory. In fact, our rediscovered appetite for kimchi is a part of the conservative food movement that careful and thoughtful people have begun to follow. Kimchi is one of the most important fermented foods. "Fermentation, like cooking with fire, is one of the initial conditions of civilization," writes Burkhard Bilger in the current issue of The New Yorker. "The alcohol and acids it produces can preserve fruits and grains for months and even years, making sedentary society possible."
We can date the beginning of the new buzz about kimchi to at least 2003 with the publication of Sandor Katz's underground best-seller, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. Then, in 2005, Korean scientists claimed that 11 of 13 infected chickens started to recover from avian flu after being fed an extract of kimchi.
My personal rediscovery of kimchi was an automatic result of my visit to South Korea last month. With a single exception, the restaurants that I ate in served me kimchi with every meal. One of the Kimchi dishes on this table is the really red one The typical Korean kimchi starts with fermented napa cabbage to which they can add all sorts of vegetables, often including radishes, celery, carrots, onions, garlic, and salt -- and especially red chili. Some kimchi can in fact be too hot for most American taste buds, although I relished every type I tried while I was visiting Korea. During my visit to South Korea the country was experiencing what everyone called the Kimchi crisis and some even said was a national tragedy. "The price for one head of long-leafed Napa cabbage grown in South Korea has skyrocketed in the past month, from about $2.50 to as much as $14," according to a front-page article in The International Herald Tribune. "Domestic radishes have tripled in price, to more that $5 apiece, and the price of garlic has more than doubled." Most of the blame goes to Korea's overly rainy weather this year. The crisis is so bad that President Lee Myung-bak said that until the cost comes down he will take the drastic step of eating only the cheap and "inferior" kind of cabbage -- the round-headed variety that we have in America. President Lee may actually doing his body a favor by eating kimchi made with our typical cabbage. The most widely available source of kimchi that we have in the U.S. comes from Rejuvenative Foods. Whole Foods Markets carry their kimchi jars in refrigerated cases. A spokesperson for the manufacturer says that they use regular green cabbage in their products because it has the most lactobacillus on its leaves since it grows closer to the ground than napa cabbage. Red cabbage won't work. Only in its "Caraway Kimchi" does Rejuvenative Foods use napa cabbage and in that case only about one-third of the cabbage. Lactobacillus is the key to kimchi. We use lactobacillus species to make most of the other fermented pro-biotic foods, including yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, beer, wine, cider, and chocolate. These lactic acid bacteria may possess potential therapeutic properties including anti-inflammatory -- especially important for people with diabetes -- as well as possible anti-cancer activities. But, except for kimchi and sauerkraut, people with diabetes have good reason to avoid or minimize all of these pro-biotic foods. They don't fit within "the Paleo Diet," which my friend and associate Joan Mercantini just wrote about in an important article here. Unlike those other fermented foods, I can think of only two reasons why you might want to stop short of a kimchi feast. One is spice and the other is salt. Some, but not all kimchi preparations are indeed too hot for most Americans. So shop around. And until I discovered the varieties of kimchi that Rejuvenative Foods offers, I thought that the high levels of salt they have would be an insurmountable obstacle. Not. Rejuvenative offers three varieties of kimchi that are quite low in salt. These include my personal favorite, Sea Vegetable Kimchi. Caraway Kimchi and Salt-Free Garden Kimchi are even lower in salt, but sadly I haven't been able to find them where I live. I hope that you are luckier in your home town. Of course, if none of these great foods work for you then you can fall back to the bland sauerkraut. Just make sure that any kimchi or sauerkraut you eat has live cultures. Give kimchi a chance. It is not only one of the most healthy foods we can eat but is also both tasty and tangy. It has earned its buzz.