I’ve always wondered why kimchi is practically always on the side dish menu of authentic traditional Japanese restaurants. Apparently, this popularity of kimchi in Japanese cuisine even led to a dispute between the two countries (Korea takes its kimchi verrrry seriously). Japan started making their own version of kimchi which they called “kimuchi” (as pronounced by Japanese) – but the difference is that this isn’t fermented like traditional Korean kimchi. This imitation kimchi has become very popular that many Japanese food companies and restaurants have picked it up. The export of Japanese kimchi has also even overtaken that of Korean kimchi (which may have contributed to the trade dispute).
In terms of preparation, Japanese kimchi is quite different from Korean kimchi. The original Korean side dish can be made of various ingredients like Chinese cabbage, red pepper, garlic, salted fish, and ginger. These are stored and allowed to ferment in clay pots to give its pungent and distinct flavor. On the other hand, Japanese kimchi is simply made with Chinese cabbage with flavoring. It isn’t as tasty and it lacks the strong flavor of Korean kimchi. Because it skips the traditional fermentation process, Japanese kimchi is also cheaper than Korean kimchi.
For Koreans, kimchi is a matter of cultural pride. So it’s no wonder that Korean representatives argued in 1996 that Japanese kimchi is different from Korean kimchi. This was after Japan tried to have Japanese kimchi listed as official food in the Atlanta Olympics. The argument over how Japanese kimchi was a pale imitation even led to Korea lobbying for standards in kimchi-making with the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Codex Alimentarius. The Codex Alimentarius is basically a collection of guidelines with regards to food. By 2001, kimchi guidelines were finally included in the Codex.
Well based on what I tasted in Little Tokyo, Korean kimchi is still waaay better compared to imitation Japanese kimchi. Kimuchi is a bit bland and not as spicy. It also doesn’t have that “wine-like” taste which fermented Korean kimchi has. So my suggestion, if you’re looking for real kimchi – head on to a Korean restaurant.