My kimchi habit will no doubt be a great relief to the government of South Korea, which has made spreading the word about the country's national dish an official policy. The Korea Food Research Institute has a traditional-foods division charged with the "scientific research of Korean fermented foods such as sauces, alcohols, and kimchi for their globalization," according to its Web site.
At first, such a policy might seem odd; Americans have a fierce love affair with hamburgers, but I'm unaware of any government program to evangelize them. We've left that job to McDonald's. But in Korea, kimchi is a national obsession. Seoul has a kimchi museum with a vast collection of cookbooks, cooking utensils and storage jars. Families around the country own special refrigerators designed to maintain the optimal temperature for the stinky vegetables' fermentation and preservation. Perhaps the most famous example of the nation's kimchi fever is that South Korean scientists spent years developing a recipe for a bacteria-free "space kimchi" to accompany their first citizen's visit to the international space station.
"This will greatly help my mission," Ko San, then a 30-year-old computer scientist, said in a statement quoted by the New York Times before he was to blast off in 2008. "Since I am taking kimchi with me, this will help with cultural exchanges in space."
Kimchi has been an integral part of Korean culture for thousands of years. The first record of it dates to the 7th century, according to Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of "Quick and Easy Korean Cooking" (Chronicle Books, 2009), though it is believed that Koreans have eaten it for far longer. Modern versions didn't arise until the 15th century, when the first chili peppers arrived from the new world. About that time, cooks also began to add salted seafood, which gives the dish its pungent perfume.
Traditional kimchi, the kind I've been making, uses Napa cabbage. But there are seemingly infinite varieties. In Seoul, you might find baby ginseng kimchi, while north and south of the city, eggplant and pumpkin varieties are common. Historically, kimchi was made in late fall and buried in earthen jars to preserve it during the winter. Today, it is made year-round and varies with the season, incorporating Asian radishes in winter and cucumbers in summer.