by Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Korean food is heartier and more hotly flavored than other Asian cuisines. Korean soy sauce is darker than Japanese soy sauce, and hot chilies are used more liberally than in Thai cuisine. The traditional Korean flavor profile is a combination of soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, sesame seeds, sesame oil, and hot chilies, served with salted vegetables. Also, Korea has harsh, cold winters. Methods were developed over the years to insure a variety of vegetables in winter menus. These methods included salting and fermenting vegetables so they could last through the entire winter. Kimchi is probably the most renowned of these preserved vegetables.

You may have heard of kimchi. It is a flavorful food that is rich in minerals, including calcium and iron, vitamins A and C, and niacin. In fact, it was originally used as a source of nutrients when fresh produce was not available. The most prevalent type is made with green cabbage that is salted, fermented in earthenware jars, and heavily seasoned with hot chilies.

Kimchi is usually divided into two categories, seasonal or stored. Seasonal kimchi is made with spring and summer vegetables, such as zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, sprouts, and pea vines. It is designed for short-term use and does not have a long shelf life. Young cabbage kimchi, cucumber kimchi, and baby radish kimchi are some examples of seasonal kimchi. The stored variety, which is meant to last over the long winter months, is usually made with cabbage, onions, and chili. Whole cabbage kimchi, diced radish kimchi, and ponytail cabbage kimchi are common examples. Both types are made almost year-round nowadays, as the availability of most vegetables has increased.

The use of kimchi has been historically documented for at least 2,000 years. Vegetables preserved with salt had been a Chinese tradition. Around the 16th century, preserving cabbage with chili became popular in Korea. The preparation of kimchi, kimjang, soon became a great tradition. It was a family or neighborhood affair, with everyone pitching in throughout all the seasons of the year. In the early spring, chilies, onions, and green onions were planted. They were harvested in the summer. Cabbage and radishes were purchased in early autumn. For traditional families, it is estimated that 20-30 heads of cabbage may be needed to prepare enough kimchi to last through the winter.

The flavor of kimchi varies from family to family, region to region. As different vegetables were grown, different kimchi varieties were invented. In the northern regions of Korea, where the weather is cooler, kimchi is less salty and more plainly seasoned, with the vegetable flavor coming through. In the southern regions, where the weather can be hotter, kimchi is salty and hotly seasoned with ginger, chili, and extra juice. Most kimchi authorities will tell you there are at least 200 varieties.

A note about kimchi and sodium: Because kimchi is soaked in brine, it is nearly impossible to determine how much salt has been absorbed into this dish. Therefore, kimchi is not recommended for individuals who are concerned about their sodium intakes.

A kimchi’s flavor is influenced by the type of cabbage and radish used; by the amount of chili, garlic, ginger, and onion used; and by the type of seasonal vegetables, such as cucumbers or sprouts, used. Aromatic seasonings, such as sesame leaves and Indian mustard leaves, are added when available. Fermentation adds to the flavor of kimchi; the longer it is allowed to ferment, the richer the flavor.

Ginger, garlic, and red chili pepper are the predominant seasonings for most kimchis, while cabbage, radishes, and onions are the vegetables used to form their bulk. Two varieties of cabbage are used. Korean cabbage, with long thin stalks, is not usually available in the United States. However, Napa cabbage, also called celery cabbage, is often used as well. There are three kinds of radishes used for kimchi. Korean radish and ponytail radish are not usually found in the United States, but daikon radish can be found in most markets and many farmers’ markets. Check Asian markets in your area for Korean varieties of cabbage and radish. Green onions are the onions of choice for kimchi.

In addition, you can use fresh watercress in kimchi recipes. Korean watercress resembles a cross between North American watercress and Japanese wasabi. If you want a little more “zing,” you can add a small amount of freshly grated horseradish along with the fresh watercress. Fresh ginger and fresh red and green chili peppers are almost always used to flavor kimchi. Save some of the ginger to make a soothing tea. Steep slices of fresh ginger in boiling water for several minutes. Ginger tea can be served hot or cold. Be careful when seeding fresh chilies. Wash your hands very, very well before touching your skin or eyes.

Kimchi was originally stored underground in earthenware crocks. The crocks were covered with straw mats and then dirt. This storage method helped to prevent temperature fluctuations and to ensure the food remained safe to eat. The kimchi was usually stored in several small crocks, rather than one big one. This way, only a small amount was uncovered and recovered at a time. If you don’t have the time to do formal preserving, which includes sterilizing containers, you can prepare kimchi to be stored for short periods of time in the refrigerator.

Kimchi is a ubiquitous condiment, found at every meal. It can be used as a dressing or instead of sauce, salsa, or ketchup; served as an appetizer; and used as an ingredient in cooking. Kimchi soup, kimchi with steamed or fried rice, kimchi ramen, and kimchi pancakes are popular dishes. Kimchi can be tossed with diced tofu and heated or eaten cold for a fast breakfast or lunch. Scramble tofu with kimchi and diced tomatoes for a spicy breakfast entrée or for a sandwich or wrap filling. Kimchi perks up cold green, rice, and pasta salads; steamed or grilled vegetables; and cooked pasta, barley, quinoa, spelt, and rice. It can be added to bean or vegetable soups or to casseroles. It can also be used instead of sauce on grilled or baked seitan or tempeh, vegetable brochettes, and baked potatoes.


A note about ingredients:
Since many of us don’t have access to Korean markets, many ingredients have been “translated” to more available products. If you have access to an ethnic market, ask about Korean radish, which resembles fresh daikon; Korean pears, which are firmer and less sweet than Bartlett pears; fresh mustard leaves (also available at Indian markets); and red pepper threads.

You’ll need earthenware, glass, or porcelain containers to store kimchi in the refrigerator. Don’t use plastic or metal containers or decorative china bowls, as the kimchi ingredients will interact with the containers. If you have an extra crock and lid from your crockpot, that will work well. Large mason jars and heavy (thick-walled) mixing bowls also work.

Recipe Index


Northern White Kimchi

(Makes about sixteen 1/2-cup servings)

This white kimchi is a winter kimchi, meant to last throughout the cold months. The seasoning of ginger and garlic is a twist on the usual commercial kimchi. The juice from this kimchi can be mixed with cold rice or noodles for a quick snack.

  • 3 heads thinly sliced Napa (or celery) cabbage (Save the tough outer leaves; do not slice them.)
  • 3 cups kosher salt (also called coarse salt)
  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 cup peeled, julienne-cut (matchstick) daikon radish
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh watercress
  • 4 whole dried mustard leaves*
  • 3 green onions, chopped (Use entire onion, green and white sections.)
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons table salt
  • 1 cup pear juice or nectar
  • 2 Tablespoons peeled, sliced fresh ginger
  • 10 dried dates, chopped
  • 2 cups cored, sliced unpeeled Bartlett pears
  • 1/4 cup sliced soaked dried mushrooms**
  • 2 Tablespoons red pepper flakes

Select, wash, and sanitize several wide-mouth glass jars or earthenware containers.

The first step in making kimchi is to salt the cabbage. Combine the sliced cabbage and intact outer leaves with 3 cups of kosher salt and 4 quarts of water. Allow to soak for 2 hours or until cabbage is softened. Rinse well with cold water and drain. Set aside.

Place radishes in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients, except cabbage, and mix until well combined. Place one outer leaf on the bottom of a container or crock. Add one quarter of mixture and one quarter of the shredded cabbage. Place another leaf on top, cover with mixture and shredded cabbage, and repeat until either container is three-quarters full or mixture is completely used. Place a weight on top, such as several small glass plates. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 days. Your refrigerated kimchi should last for one month in the refrigerator. Mix before each use to incorporate flavors.

*Available at natural foods stores or Indian markets. If you can’t locate them, just omit them.
**You can find dried mushrooms in the gourmet section of grocery stores, in natural food stores, and at farmers’ markets. Soak mushrooms in just enough water to cover for 10 minutes, or until soft. Discard water and slice mushrooms.

Total calories per serving: 79 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 7 grams

Buckwheat Noodles with Kimchi

(Serves 4)

This soup-like entrée can be prepared with any type of “chewy” noodles, such as soba, udon, or broad noodles. Pear adds a bit of sweetness to this spicy dish.

  • 1/2 pound buckwheat noodles
  • 2 cups kimchi with its juice
  • 1/2 cup peeled, shredded cucumber
  • 1 cup extra firm tofu, drained and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh Bartlett pear
  • 1 quart hot vegetable stock or broth

Bring 2 quarts of water to boil and cook buckwheat noodles until tender. Drain.

To serve noodles, prepare as follows in 4 soup bowls:

  • Place 1/2 cup kimchi and juice in each bowl.
  • Add 2 Tablespoons of cucumber on top of kimchi.
  • Add 1/4 cup tofu slices on top of cucumber.
  • Add several slices of pear on top of tofu.

Just prior to serving, pour 1 cup hot vegetable stock over ingredients. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 301 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 57 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 3 grams

Kimchi Ramyon

(Serves 4)

This is the Korean version of those instant “cup ‘o’ noodles” sold in most stores. Now you can prepare a vegan, lowfat version. If you can’t locate ramen noodles, use any quick cooking rice or wheat noodles, such as vermicelli, fideo, or angel hair pasta.

  • 1 pound ramen noodles (available in the Asian section of most grocery stores)
  • 4 cups boiling vegetable stock or broth
  • 2 cups kimchi
  • 4 green onions, minced
  • 1/2 cup minced red bell peppers
  • Extra firm tofu cubes (optional)

Add ramen noodles to boiling stock and allow to cook for 3 minutes. Reduce to simmer and add kimchi, onions, and peppers. Allow to simmer for 2 minutes. Serve hot.

If desired, stir in extra firm tofu cubes right before serving.

Total calories per serving: 465 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 94 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 4 grams

Rice and Kimchi

(Serves 4)

Make your own spicy rice bowl with the contrasting textures of fresh vegetables and preserved kimchi.

  • 1 cup julienne-cut (matchstick) zucchini
  • 1 cup French-cut (thinly cut on a diagonal) fresh or frozen, thawed green beans
  • 1/2 cup fresh soy bean sprouts
  • 1/4 cup sliced fresh red pepper
  • 4 cups steamed white rice (Start with 1-3/4 cups uncooked rice.)
  • 1 cup kimchi

Spray frying pan or wok with vegetable oil spray. Separately, quickly sauté zucchini, green beans, sprouts, and peppers.

To serve, arrange rice on each plate so it covers half the plate, in a half-moon shape. Arrange a small amount of zucchini, green beans, sprouts, and kimchi on each plate, in individual ribbons emanating from the rice. Garnish rice with red peppers. Serve warm.

Total calories per serving: 198 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 42 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 4 grams

Kimchi Soup

(Serves 4)

This is a fast way to make a spicy, satisfying soup. Serve with rice or noodles to create an entrée.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 cup cubed extra firm or smoked tofu
  • 1 quart boiling vegetable stock
  • 1 cup kimchi

Spray a soup pot with vegetable oil and allow to heat. Sauté garlic and onions until soft, about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce and stir for 30 seconds. Add tofu, stir, and allow to cook for 2 minutes. Add stock and kimchi. Allow to simmer, covered, until flavors are combined, about 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Total calories per serving: 73 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 1 gram

“Instant” Fresh Cabbage Kimchi

(Makes about sixteen 1/2-cup servings)

Use this recipe when you just can’t wait for a fresh batch of kimchi. It takes a little less time to prepare than traditional kimchi and is ready to eat immediately. If you have some left over, package it in glass or earthenware containers and refrigerate until ready to use.

  • 3 heads Napa cabbage
  • 2 cups kosher salt (also called coarse salt)
  • 4 green onions, cut into long, thin threads (Use entire onion, green and white sections.)
  • 2 fresh chilies, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 Tablespoons hot sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame seed oil (optional)

Quarter cabbage heads. Soak in 3 quarts of cold water mixed with 2 cups kosher salt until they just begin to wilt, about 20-30 minutes. Drain and wash well. Cut into narrow strips. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix onions, chilies, garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, and sugar. Add cabbage and toss until well coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving. It is traditional to garnish this kimchi with a drop of sesame seed oil.

Total calories per serving: 37 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: See note on sodium. Fiber: 6 grams


Pumpkin Kimchi:

Replace cabbage with 3 pounds of fresh pumpkin or winter squash that has been peeled, seeded, and cut into 2-inch squares. Proceed as above.

Leek Kimchi:

Replace total cabbage with 36 (about 6 pounds) fresh leeks that have been washed, trimmed, and chopped into 2-inch strips.

Green Chili and Spinach Kimchi:

Replace total cabbage with 30 (about 1-1/2 pounds) fresh green chilies, such as Anaheim chilies, that have been seeded and cut into thin strips and 15 pounds fresh spinach that has been washed and drained.

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Microwave Cookbook.