What Does Kimchi Taste Like? Ultimate Flavor Guide

Kimchi comes in all shapes and colors. So what does kimchi taste like? It’s hard to generalize since there are so many variations, but it can be described as a surprisingly satisfying combination of sour, spicy, and fizzy characteristics. It will have a unique flavor based on what type of vegetables, fruits, and spices are used in the fermentation process. 

Does Kimchi Taste Good?

You’ll either love it or hate it. In any case, it is definitely an acquired taste due to its sourness and spiciness. Kimchi tastes the best when it’s fresh and made with natural, locally sourced ingredients (duh!). Have you tried kimchi and weren’t a fan of it? Don’t give up on it just yet! Perhaps consider trying a milder variety. Or a vegan version without any fish sauce that has less pungent, more subtle flavors.

The 9 Flavors of Kimchi

Different flavors associated with classic kimchi
Most kimchi has a taste profile reminiscent of this diagram. Clockwise, from most to least prominent flavors.

Fizzy

Cause: Chemical reaction during fermentation.

It can get incredibly in that mason jar of yours. To the point where it’s bubbling like a soda. This is a very admirable reaction indicating that fermentation is taking place correctly. If you’re not a fan of fizziness, there are a few measures you can take to prevent that.

Spicy

Causes: Red pepper flakes and (sometimes) potent radish varieties or garlic.

Kimchi is usually only mildly spicy. But, the level of spiciness can vary wildly based on the amount and type of red pepper flakes used. Korean red pepper flakes (Gochugaru) are the gold standard for kimchi-making. They are less spicy and more flavorful than conventional chili flakes. They are also responsible for kimchi’s characteristically red color.

Sour

Cause: Lactic acid produced due to fermentation

Kimchi has a pH of around 4.1, which is around the same pH as tomato sauce, sweetened fruit juices, or blackberries. But comparatively, the kimchi’s sourness tastes more intense. Combined with the garlicky flavor, this is also the main reason why many westerners find it simply offputting. During kimchi fermentation, the lactobacillus bacteria produce lactic acid, which increases the acidity of the kimchi.

Salty

Causes: Salt, fish sauce, or soy sauce added prior to fermentation.

The salt content is probably your biggest concern when eating kimchi. Due to its diverse flavor profile, the sheer amount of salt you may consume, may not be as noticeable. Please note: You may be shocked at the amount of salt you need to prepare the cabbage. Don’t worry! The saltiness slowly takes a backseat as fermentation progresses. If it still ends up too salty, there are a few easy fixes you can try!

Astringent

Cause: Fizziness and sourness

It comes as no surprise that a carbonated, acidic dish is also astringent. Kimchi will make your inner cheeks constrict, much like cranberry juice or a slice of well-aged cheese. This noticeable astringency makes a few bites of kimchi an ideal appetizer to activate your tastebuds for an upcoming dish!

Umami

Cause: Fish Sauce

Fish and seafood is a common ingredient in many Korean dishes. Processed fish condiments include anchovy paste, shrimp paste, and most notably, fish sauce. The fish sauce enriches kimchi with a potent savory umami flavor. There is no in-between with fish sauce. You either love it or hate it. I find vegan kimchi tastier and don’t miss the umami flavor too much. Replacing fish sauce with soy sauce makes it a lighter dish. All the other flavors also seem more pronounced when removing umami from the equation.

Garlicky

Causes: Garlic and (sometimes) wild garlic

You will have real difficulties finding a Korean dish that doesn’t include garlic! Be it fresh garlic, black garlic, dried garlic flakes, garlic powder, garlic paste or freshly-picked wild garlic (also known as bear’s garlic). The garlicky flavor intensifies during fermentation and is the main contributor to kimchi breath!

Bitter

The bitterness of kimchi should be very subtle. If Kimchi has a strong bitter aftertaste, it is likely due to the following reasons:

  1. You made bitter melon kimchi (Fingers crossed that’s the reason!)
  2. You used a bad recipe or miscalculated the ingredients.
  3. You messed up somewhere during the fermentation process. Perhaps your kimchi wasn’t fully submerged in the brine?

Sweet

Causes: Sugar added prior to fermentation, sugar in gochujang (if used as a replacement for gochugaru), and sugar in fruits

Some recipes can use quite a lot of sugar and even include sweet fruits, such as apples or Korean pears. At first sight, this may seem undesirable for a savory, spicy dish. Don’t worry though! The probiotic bacteria consume most of the sugar during fermentation. Here you can find out more about sugar’s role in kimchi-making.

Does kimchi taste like sauerkraut?

No! Although kimchi and sauerkraut have similarities, such as sourness and spiciness, they do not taste exactly alike. 

Both kimchi and sauerkraut are made with cabbage, but kimchi uses napa cabbage while sauerkraut uses regular green cabbage to make kraut. Sauerkraut also contains garlic, salt, caraway seed/powder, and other ingredients. Kimchi also contains traditional kimchi Korean ingredients. Virtually any ingredient can be added to kimchi according to one’s own taste preference, location, or what you have available to use.

Unsurprisingly, sauerkraut’s taste can be described as “more Western” (Another duh-moment!). The flavors are rather one-sided and generally milder. In contrast, kimchi includes many additional flavors that are popular in many Asian cuisines. This results in kimchi benefitting from a more well-rounded, generally spicier flavor profile.

Illustrating the flavors of two types of kimchi and sauerkraut.
Please note: These diagrams are entirely based on our subjective experience.

White kimchi uses less salt and no Korean red pepper flakes. Thus, it is the type of kimchi, that’s the most comparable to sauerkraut:

As you can see in the following video, opinions about the taste of kimchi may vary 😀

Kimchi’s texture and mouthfeel

As always, everything depends on the type of kimchi. Traditional kimchi made with Chinese cabbage tastes equally soft and crunchy. Radish kimchi or kimchi with regular green cabbage instead of napa cabbage is much more crunchy. If you add more carrots, coarsely chopped ginger or other chunky vegetables, your kimchi will end up crunchier. Kimchi becomes more compact and softer as fermentation progresses. It is all a matter of personal preference. I favor finely cut, soft kimchi over crunchy kimchi with bulky vegetables.

What does Kimchi smell like?

Cabbagy, garlicky and fishy – kimchi smells just as intense as it tastes. Vegan kimchi without seafood or fish sauce tends to stink a little less. If you’re on a date or are having business lunch, kimchi is definitely a hard sell. It is even smellier than most other fermented vegetables. “Kimchi breath” can even linger around till the following day!

Three actionable tips for best-tasting kimchi:

  1. Practice, perseverance and patience. It is really hard to tell how your kimchi will end up. In fact, you may hardly even recognize it after it has fermented. Due to this long feedback loop, patience and perseverance are key. However, once you have established your go-to recipe and found out where to source the best local ingredient, it’s a real breeze.
  2. Be extra careful when measuring potent spices and condiments. These include: Fish sauce and soy sauce, gochugaru, sugar, vinegar, and salt.
  3. Do the amounts a recipe calls for seem suspicious? Double-check by comparing it to a similar recipe!

Watch out for store-bought kimchi, which tastes “a little too good!

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an ingredient found in many store-bought, Asian convenience foods. Results from a 2018 study suggest that MSG (as a GABA precursor) can significantly improve kimchi’s perceived taste. Thus, it comes as no surprise: Many canned and jarred kimchi products sold in Korean grocery shops and Asian supermarkets contain added kimchi.

Fun fact: Kimchi contains natural MSG.

What most people don’t know: Kimchi naturally produces MSG during the fermentation process. I won’t start the debate around the effects of MSG, since that is way offtopic. Just remember: If you have an MSG allergy, making your own kimchi may not be an option either. 

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