Outside Korea, kimchi is perhaps the best known dish of Korean food and it is gaining popularity in the Western world surfing the wave of #healthfood.
But did you know that in Korea, kimchi is most of the times not vegan or vegetarian?
Among the many ingredients of kimchi, there is usually something called jeot (젓) / jeotgal (젓갈) – fermented 🐟fish sauce or fermented tiny 🦐shrimp, occasionally other kinds of 🦀seafood. Unless you carefully examine kimchi and manage to identify tiny black dots as the eyes of tiny shrimp, this key ingredient remains hidden most of the time. 👀
Beside the distinct savory flavor (#umami #감칠맛), which many Koreans appreciate in their food, jeotgal adds proteins and minerals to the vegetable dish. While its nutritional value certainly contributes to kimchi being labelled as a super food nowadays, this is certainly not the only reason why kimchi is traditionally served with every meal and appreciated for its positive effect on the health of your digestive system.
There are countless varieties of kimchi, differing not only by the vegetable starring as the main feature of this side dish, e.g. cabbage, cucumber and radish. Basically, kimchi can be produced from all kinds of vegetables by salting, then seasoning and lastly fermenting them. Overall, there are numerous methods, types of kimchi as well as ingredients constituting the sauce. On top of that, each family possesses their own recipe for making kimchi. The diversity of kimchi is accordingly sheer endless.
As a rule of thumb:
Regular kimchi contains jeotgal.
Most frequently served as complimentary side dishes are the kimchi with napa cabbage (baechu kimchi 배추김치) or kimchi made from cubes of radish (kkakdugi 깍두기). Occasionally, also these are made without jeotgal, or they may contain it in such small amounts, that a sensitive nose can hardly discern its fishy traces.
There are only a few classic varieties which it is normally not added to: Those of the ‘water kimchi’ type (mul kimchi 물김치), in which the vegetables are literally swimming in the pickling brine, as well as the white version of napa cabbage kimchi (baek kimchi 백김치). In rare cases, however, they may have been seasoned with jeotgal as every family has their own recipe. It seems that only dongchimi (동치미) is vegan by default.
It’s always best to confirm by asking. You can do so by saying something like this:
Kimchineun hoksi jeotgal deureosseoyo?
김치는 혹시 젓갈 들었어요?
“Is there possibly fish sauce in the Kimchi?”
Whenever I asked restaurant staff to confirm whether they put jeotgal into their kimchi, the answer was either yes or they didn’t know. I always wondered whether that’s because they are afraid of giving away their secret recipe or because really nobody except for the old lady working in the kitchen who has produced kimchi for the entire family all her life really knows! 🙃
Anyways. If you want to be 100% sure about what you’re eating, bear in mind that kimchi is most likely not vegan.