There are as many kimchis as there are Koreans.* In the Korean diaspora as well as in Korea itself, the basic pickled cabbage, tongkimchi, which is the national condiment, the national dish, and the national folk panacea, starts out as Napa cabbage (aka nappa or celery cabbage or Chinese cabbage or in Korean, baechu [Brassica rapa var. pekinensis]), the big white-and-green, watery, crunchy cabbage now common in our markets.
The fermentation is a basic lactic-acid fermentation in a crock in brine. The cabbage leaves are first softened in the brine, then coated with the other ingredients, including pickled fish, tied up in packages, and left to ferment in the crock. Koreans have traditionally made their own kimchi, usually in the fall, the so-called kimjang, or kimchi-making season. Special markets open to sell standard ingredients. Corporations give kimjang bonuses to help workers out with the expense of making the huge quantities of kimchi that supply them with vegetable nutrition throughout the winter. By burying sealed crocks, they can keep a batch for several weeks in cold weather.
Kimchi is also an ingredient in many “made” dishes, especially soups and one-pot casseroles.
Koreans began pickling vegetables as far back as the twelfth century, but chiles did not become widely available until the eighteenth century, while Chinese cabbage was not introduced until the nineteenth. The name “kimchi” may have begun as shimchae (salted vegetables) and then evolved to dimchae, then to kimchae, and finally to modern kimchi. Many claims for the health-giving qualities of kimchi are made by proud, kimchi-loving Koreans. And Koreans act on these claims by eating even more kimchi than normal when disease threatens.
During the SARS scare, kimchi consumption went up. And in the spring of 2005, the same thing happened after scientists fed kimchi to thirteen chickens infected with avian flu. Eleven recovered.