South Korea's National Dish Has a Flavor Not Everyone Can Agree On

South Korea's national dish is one thing you have to try if you're looking to experience new foods.

Kori Williams - Author

Feb. 14 2024, Published 3:02 p.m. ET

Three jars of kimchi on a wooden table.
Source: iStock

If you have ever delved into Asian cuisine, you may have encountered kimchi. Not only is kimchi South Korea's national dish, per DW, but it's also thousands of years old! Kimchi is primarily comprised of fermented vegetables and is popular globally.

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When you first try this Korean staple, you may notice how distinct the taste is. But what exactly does kimchi taste like? To some, it's something you must try for yourself to truly understand. Thankfully, this unique flavor is also extremely versatile. Here's our best attempt to describe what kimchi tastes like and how you can prepare it for yourself.

A jar and bowl of kimchi next to various ingredients on a wooden table.
Source: iStock
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What does kimchi taste like?

Although there are different kinds of kimchi, the most widely known is called Baechu kimchi, which is made with napa cabbage, scallions, garlic, salt, ginger, fish sauce, and gochugaru (Korean chili flakes), per The Food Network.

According to Cozymeal, the taste of kimchi depends on several factors. Other kinds of kimchi are created with vegetables like radishes, cucumbers, and perilla leaves, which could change the flavor profile, but the biggest factor would be fermentation.

Spice and Life points out that you can't pinpoint kimchi's savory flavor because it has so many things going on simultaneously. The publication uses salty and sour to describe it, but some versions of this dish are hotter than others. You can also put your own spin on the dish, which means a mild meal could turn into something hotter than expected.

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Someone using chopsticks to take kimchi out of a jar.
Source: iStock

On the other hand, The Kitchen Aboard states that kimchi has an umami taste to it. Umami flavor is present in the dish because of the glutamates, or amino acids, which come from the fish sauce in a typical kimchi recipe.

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If you're looking to try kimchi for the first time, you might want to try a few different versions. Our best recommendation is to try various Korean restaurants and get recommendations from friends. This way, you can figure out not only if you like it, but if you like it prepared a particular way. Or you could try making your own based on flavors you already enjoy.

Is Kimchi vegan?

Because kimchi tends to have fish sauce, it's not typically a vegan dish. But luckily, kimchi is what you make it, so there are various ways to make a vegan version.

The Minimalist Baker's vegan kimchi recipe includes ten ingredients you should have no problem finding at a specialty grocery store.

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A bowl of kimchi.
Source: iStock

You can make the sauce with the following:

  • 1/4 cup of canned pineapple juice
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 Tbsp coconut sugar
  • 2 Tbsp tamari, if you need something gluten-free try soy sauce instead

You can also add a chili sauce and some veggies like cabbage, green onions, and carrots.

In another recipe by Serious Eats, garlic and ginger give the dish a distinct flavor. Red miso paste is used instead of dried shrimp to make it vegan-friendly.

Based on these recipes, kimchi looks like a complicated dish. But once you combine all the ingredients, it usually only takes a while to make because of the fermentation process.

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