Kimchi / Kimchee
Absolutely indispensable at any Korean meal, this is a salt fermented vegetable pickle made in Korea, Manchuria, and northern China since ancient times. Napa cabbage (actually a turnip green) and Radish (daikon) are most common, but there must be at least a hundred distinct recipes that include many different vegetables. The photo shows cabbage kimchi on the left and radish on the right. Kimchi is bright red but pretty mild by Southern California standards - though folks from the Frozen North may disagree.
Officially, in 1966 at a food science convention in Poland, the English spelling was standardized as "Kimchee". Here in Los Angeles, where kimchi production is measured in tons per day (and I don't mean just a few), that spelling is totally ignored in favor of "Kimchi".
More on Cabbage Pickles.
While kimchi has been made for perhaps 3000 years, and from many vegetable mixes, the biggest change came in the early 1700s when chili peppers brought to Asia by the Dutch and Portuguese became incorporated into the mix. Today most people just presume that kimchi has plenty of red chili in it, but white kimchis are still made. The photo to the left shows a white radish kimchi which is quite popular here in Southern California.
Cabbage kimchi is the most popular, and my favorite, with daikon radish second. The cabbage may be chopped coarsely as shown in the photo - or the jar may just be stuffed with a couple whole cabbages. The cabbages used are of the same sort as our Napa Cabbage, but an elongated cultivar is selected, particularly for "whole cabbage kimchi".
Buying: Some pretty dismal kimchi is sold in small jars in non-Korean stores. Excellent kimchi can be had in just about any Korean market, at least here in Los Angeles. Always buy from refrigerated cases - if it's not refrigerated it must be pasteurized (spelled "r u i n e d"). It's best to buy in 1/2 gallon or larger jars if you can eat that much, but if you buy smaller jars buy a brand the store is also selling in 1/2 gallon and 1 gallon sizes. If they're selling it in jars that large they must have customers who really like it.
Vegetarian Note: While kimchi is nearly all vegetable, most formulas contain a small amount of oysters, shrimp or fish sauce (made from anchovies) so if you're really strict and would be devastated to know you consumed some seafood, read the ingredients list carefully (or don't read the list and claim ignorance - a better strategy, actually). MSG is not included in the kimchis made around here.
Storage: Kimchi is a live culture, so it will change and eventually spoil if mistreated. It is best kept refrigerated and consumed within a week.
Cooking: Kimchi is generally served as a side dish or condiment (a Korean table will have several small dishes along with the main dish). In some cooked dishes, particularly with soups, kimchi is used as an ingredient - just follow the recipe.