ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS Kimchi’s Beginnings: Baechu, the Chinese Cabbage

Chinese cabbage, or baechu, is the main ingredient of kimchi, the most popular of the traditional Korean side dishes. The crunchy-tender white stemmed and curly light-green-leafed cabbage is an indispensible part of the Korean diet since the 17th century, when it started to be cultivated in Korea. Though relatively undervalued compared to other vegetables belonging to the Brassicaceae family, baechu packs more nutritional and medicinal value than usually thought.

The poem “Heart of Baechu” by Ra Hee-duk, included in a middle school textbook, touches the reader’s heart with affectionate lines anticipating a good harvest.
“Words spoken without fail all summer / As I walked along the furrows in the fields. / I’ll be happy because of you, / I’ll be happy because you’ve grown well. / Tying your leaves tight in late fall, / I see the insides so full as you’ve grown healthy.”
Just as the poet personifies it in her lyrical imagination, so familiar and important to Koreans is the vegetable called baechu.

The Brassicaceae Family
Baechu is one of the three vegetables Koreans consume the most, along with daikon radish (mu) and chili pepper (gochu). This particular cabbage belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which includes daikon, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale, among others. While broccoli and cabbage, often served on the Western table, have long been established as health foods, baechu and daikon have not been fully recognized yet for their nutritional and health value, as less research has been done on their effectiveness.
Baechu originally comes from China, but there is also a local cultivar named “Korean cabbage.” Baechu is classified into three kinds depending on the shape — that is, how the leaves hold together. The hard-head (gyeolgu) baechu is so tightly bound it resembles a cannonball; the semi-hard-head (bangyeolgu) baechu has only the stems tightly held together; and the leaves of loose-head (bulgyeolgu) baechu are not held together at all. From these three, only the first two varieties are grown for consumption, not only because they grow fast and yield a lot of heads, but also because they are easy to handle and store. Most people might not know that “Korean cabbage” is further categorized into Seoul baechu and Gaeseong baechu. Seoul baechu is smaller with light-colored leaves, whereas Gaeseong baechu is taller with darker leaves.

Tasty and Nutritious
A low-calorie food, baechu is much healthier than is usually known. Raw baechu is low in calories, 12 kcal per 100 grams, about half or lower than cabbage and red cabbage. Even cooked or pickled in salt, it yields only 14 kcal, not much of a burden for the body. Its sodium content amounts to 11 mg, lower than cabbage (18 mg), while its vitamin A content, which boosts the body’s immune system, amounts to 263 IU (international units), significantly higher than that of cabbage (98 IU).
Baechu is also rich in fiber which protects against constipation and lowers the risk of obesity. It is easier to digest than other vegetables, and tends to reduce in volume when heated. That it rarely ferments and thus seldom gives rise to gas in the intestines is another merit.
One thing specifically emphasized in discussions about the effectiveness of baechu is that it has been proven to have a controlling effect on cancer. A medical science team at Harvard University conducted research on the dietary habits of 47,000 people registered for a follow-up study between 1986 and 1996, and concluded that the more baechu and broccoli one consumes the lower one’s risk is of developing bladder cancer. Other research also indicates anti-cancer effects of baechu, such as the one conducted by the Korea Food Research Institute which showed that the size of liver cancer in laboratory mice fed with baechu and daikon was reduced to half, in comparison with those fed with other vegetables.

Traditional Winter Staple Food
As implied by a Korean saying, “Baechu of the fall is eaten with the door locked,” the flavor of baechu harvested in late fall is the most excellent, and it is even easier to digest. The reason is that it consists of 96.6 percent water, and is thus a vegetable well-paired with meat.
A generation or two removed from dedicated housekeeping, young people today who buy kimchi instead of making it themselves would not know how to recognize good baechu. A good one is heavier and tightly filled. Its lower base — the stem — is tightly closed, and its leaves are thin and tender. If the outer leaves of a baechu have dark spots, its inside leaves are likely to have them, too, and that baechu should be avoided.
In the past, when baechu was not available year-round like today, it was harvested in the fall in time for the kimjang (winter kimchi making) season. Baechu harvested in late fall after the first frost is the tastiest. As time passes and the temperature drops, the leaves hold more tightly together but lessen in flavor.
Koreans make soup with baechu, eat baechu raw and seasoned, or make pancakes in thin flour batter in the fall and winter in certain areas, especially in the Gyeongsang provinces, in the southeastern part of the country. But baechu is mainly used for kimchi. From the old times, kimchi has long been a staple food. In the winter, fresh vegetables were hard to get, and kimchi was almost the only food supply for essential nutrients such as vitamin C. This was particularly important for poorer people who had difficulty getting other food.
The importance of kimchi as a side dish led to the special custom of kimjang. Traditionally, a lot of kimchi is prepared around the time of ipdong, the beginning of winter. To make a lot of kimchi alone is hard, so neighboring women helped each other. Because baechu is decisive for the flavor of kimchi, it was an important task for women to get the good quality baechu for the kimjang season. The proportions of the mixed ingredients for kimchi vary depending on the area and families’ tastes, and the kimchi flavor varies accordingly. Moreover, for kimjang, pickled shrimp, fresh oysters, or raw fish are added and fermented slowly, so it is more nutritious than the usual kimchi.
It is known that in the 17th century, baechu like the kind available today began to be grown in Korea. Kimchi is assumed to first have been made shortly thereafter, but in the 18th century, red spicy kimchi appeared, the way it is made today with chili peppers. That is because the chili was introduced to Korea later than baechu, and the earlier kimchi was probably made only with salt.
The 18th century in Korea, when kimchi resembling today’s favorite side dish appeared, was a period when the economy was booming. As the consumption of rice as staple food markedly increased, the well-paired kimchi enjoyed its heyday as well. This wonderful combination is still valued today. According to a paper by a research team of Dankook University’s Department of Food and Nutrition, published in the “Journal of Nutrition and Health” in 2016, the top foods that Koreans consume more than three times a day are cooked rice and kimchi in first and second place, respectively. However, due to the increasing Westernization of local diets, Koreans’ meat consumption is rising, while their rice consumption keeps falling. As the consumption of rice decreases, that of kimchi might decline as well, as it was a side dish originally developed to add a burst of flavor to the otherwise bland tasting rice.

Baechu can be used for soup or for ssam, assorted condiments wrapped in a baechu leaf slightly pickled with salt. Bossam, slices of boiled pork and fresh oyster wrapped in soft baechu leaves, is a favorite Korean dish today.

Baechu has not been investigated to the extent that cabbage has, but undoubtedly, the two share much of the same nutritional value and similar medicinal effects.

A Top Food for Longevity
In the West, cabbage is regarded like baechu in Korea. Cabbage, nicknamed by some “a doctor for the poor,” is cheap, and along with olives and yogurt, it is considered one of the top three foods that promote longevity, hence the popular tag. Cabbage is known to have been liked by the Greek philosopher Diogenes. Some tales claim that Diogenes, who famously told Alexander the Great to stop blocking the sunlight, lived until the age of 90, despite an unsanitary environment, probably because he regularly ate cabbage. Cabbage belongs to a food group that is low in calories but high in calcium and vitamin C. With only 24 kcal per 100 grams, it is preferred by people on a diet.

Well ripened kimchi is cut bite-sized and nicely arranged in a dish. Baechu kimchi is an indispensible side dish for rice, the staple food of Koreans.

One interesting reason for cabbage being highly rated by the medical community is its vitamin U content. A research team at Stanford University determined as early as 1949 that cabbage juice is effective for treating gastric ulcers, and such experimental results have been confirmed as recently as this year. Drinking cabbage juice for a week can help reduce ulcers, which is made possible with Vitamin U, later identified as glutamine, a kind of amino acid. Glutamine, a major ingredient for artificial condiments, helps stomach cells regenerate. Recently, cabbage has also garnered attention as an anti-cancer food as well as helping prevent fractures through strengthening muscles and bones.
Baechu has not been investigated to the extent that cabbage has, but undoubtedly, the two share much of the same nutritional value and similar medicinal effects.

Park Tae-kyun Research Professor, Department of Food Engineering, Korea University
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