Kimchi is made by fermentation of vegetables using lactobacilli, a bacterium naturally present in virtually all vegetables which can convert sugars into lactic acid. This preserves the vegetable, imparts much flavour and supports healthy function in your gut and immune system.
The tradition spans more than a thousand years of Korean history and is an important part of Korean culture today. There are 200 listed kimchis in Korea ranging from aubergine to white radish. Every part of the vegetable can be used: shoots, stalks, roots, leaves and fruit.
Vegetables are salted for crunch and to remove harmful bacteria, rubbed with garlic, ginger, red chilli and other condiments for flavour, then allowed to ferment for anything from a few days to several months, depending on the vegetable, season and personal taste.
The result: salty, sweet, definitely sour, big in umami (deliciousness), spicy hot with chilli, ginger and garlic, crunchy, with a trillion aromas.
Unfortunately for us veggies fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste are ubiquitous in commercially produced kimchis. You can get vegan approximations in health food stores but these are usually more like sauerkraut in taste and texture and, though delicious in themselves, bear only a distant resemblance to the real thing.
No, there’s only one thing for it: if you want real kimchi without fish you have to make your own. It’s not difficult in principle. And you’ll love it – or hate it.