I have noticed a recurring meme on the internet recently of people searching for kosher kimchi (or sometimes kosher kimchee or kosher kim chee), or asking the question, "Is kimchi kosher?" or "Where to buy kosher kimchi?"
Since numerous studies have been completed (see here and here) showing the many health benefits of kimchi, it will be important for the kosher-keeping public to be aware of the kosher issues regarding kimchi as they desire to have access to it. I want to address these issues in this post.
What is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle made through the same process of lacto-fermentation which is used for sauerkraut, beet kvass, and other traditional cultured vegetable dishes.
The minimum legal definition of kimchi, according to the international organization Codex Alimentarius, is a salt-fermented cabbage product processed with red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, and onion (see the full legal definition here (opens as a PDF)). Many commercial variations exist.
Whether or not it is kosher depends on the particular recipe.
Some of the common ingredients you'll find in commercial kimchi are cabbage (Napa cabbage is most common), daikon radish, chili powder or hot peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions.
In some recipes, you will also find shrimp, squid, or other patently non-kosher ingredients, rendering the dish completely non-kosher. Other recipes include vinegar or "fish sauce" which are suspect without proper kosher supervision. Some companies use laboratory-produced strains of cultures to ferment their product, which is also suspect without kosher supervision. Other recipes include sugar (regarding which I wonder: why ruin such a healthy food with sugar?) or soy sauce.
If It's Vegan, is It Kosher?
These days, you will find many vegan versions of kimchi. There are two main issues with these vegan versions:
1) Whether the producers followed proper protocol for checking the vegetables for tolaim.
2) Whether kosher knives/cutting boards were used, and in particular for the "sharp" ingredients like ginger, garlic, radish, and onion.
Without supervision by someone well-versed in these kosher protocols, it is anyone's guess to what extent even a vegan kimchi is "kosher."
Are There Any Certified Kosher Kimchis?
That being said, there is at least one kosher kimchi on the market right now available from Brassica and Brine (it's called Kimchi Karma). It's available in Los Angeles and retails for $10 a jar, which is 20%-30% less than what you'll find in stores like Whole Foods for comparable organic, small-batch kimchis (which are not certified kosher) and it's delicious. The company is certified by KSA. If you live in the area and are hankering for some kosher kimchi, go check it out.
Make Your Own Kimchi
Another option is to make your own kimchi at home. For recipes and fermentation tips, I highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz which you can either check out from your local library or purchase for long-term use (which you won't regret, if you love traditional fermented foods).