One Cool Cabbage
Move over, sauerkraut! Kimchi is being hailed as a versatile superfood that packs a delicious - and tasty - punch.
Kimchi isn’t just a trendy side dish: Studies show Korea’s national dish—a combination of fermented cabbage and other veggies and spices that has been served in the motherland for more than two millennia—comes with a host of health benefits. So what can kimchi do for you? Here’s the lowdown on what’s being hailed as one of the world’s most powerful foods— including how it’s made, how to store it and why you just might need a serving.
According to the Korea Tourism Organization, there are more than 180 different types of kimchi, but the most common is made from napa cabbage (baechu) and flavored with chili flakes, ginger, garlic, fish paste, and other herbs and spices. With so many variations, Kimchi’s nutritional facts differ based on preparation, but the standard napa cabbage variety is about 10-15 calories for two tablespoons, according to two leading brands. It’s fat-free and contains vitamins A (percentage of daily values vary, but figure about 4 to 6 percent in two tablespoons) and C (6 to 10 percent). Napa cabbage is also known for its high levels of vitamin K, which promotes blood health.
But perhaps most important, kimchi is a fermented food, meaning it’s chock-full of lactic acid bacteria—aka the probiotic that’s found in yogurt. This type of “good bacteria” comes with a string of health boosts: Two studies, one published in the Journal of Cancer Prevention and the other in Journal of Medicinal Food, found that the healthy bacteria in kimchi gave it the ability to ward off cancer, prevent constipation and boost immune function. It’s also been shown to promote weight loss and skin health. One catch: Kimchi tends to be a high-sodium food because of the salt used in the fermentation process and the added soy- or fish sauce sometimes used in preparation.
Kimchi is relatively easy to find at most specialty food markets. While shopping, vegetarians should read the jar carefully: Many brands of kimchi include fish paste, and some also have beef broth, but vegan varieties are available as well. It’s possible to make kimchi at home, and instructions are available through a Google search, but special care must be taken during the process to keep harmful bacteria from growing in the jar. Keep in mind that kimchi is what’s called a “living food,” meaning that it continues to ferment while stored and will do so faster when stored at room temperature. In Korea, it’s common for a household to have a kimchi refrigerator, designed specifically for storing the food. Of course, a standard refrigerator works just as well to slow the fermentation process and prolong the life of the dish. Once the jar has been opened (tip: do this over the sink as the fermentation can sometimes cause it to bubble over), push the vegetables fully into the brine before putting it back in the fridge. This prevents oxygen from spoiling them. Opinions differ about how long kimchi will keep after being opened, but one popular brand, Mrs. Kim’s Kimchi, advises eating it within two weeks for the best flavor. Kimchi can be served on its own, as a side dish, as a topper on sandwiches or burgers, or mixed into rice dishes or soups. Some chefs even put it on pizza!
Did you know?
In autumn, Koreans hold kimjang (also called gimjang), an annual tradition during which people prepare and share kimchi among households. Says the website of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization: “The custom emphasizes the importance of sharing and is a reminder of the need to live in harmony with nature.”
Fast Fact: Just how popular is kimchi in Korea? The Korea Tourism Organization estimates that 80 percent of Korean households have a kimchi refrigerator, designed specifically to store the food.