A staple in Korea households (argued to have already been around some 1,500 years ago), kimchi is made with vegetables (most often cabbage or radish) fermented with lactic acid bacteria—a natural process which comes about as the veggies are cured in a mixture of salt, (occasionally) sugar, and other flavorings (hot pepper powder, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and the like).
Though the best brands would expectedly come from Korean groceries and households, you’ll also find more commercialized versions in local supermarkets. How do they compare?
With its deep aroma and fiery-red hue, you might think ADE’s kimchi packs a spicy punch—but a bite reveals it’s actually quite the opposite. While it gives you a decent mid-level tang and ample garlicky depth, there’s hardly any heat. This makes it a good pick for the spicy-averse, but those looking for a good chili bite are bound to be disappointed.
Perhaps the easiest to find across local supermarkets, this local brand also goes for a vivid, fiery-red in color and hits you with a powerful chili aroma. Though not too salty, this is the strongest-tasting kimchi of the bunch with an in-your-face vinegary sourness and sweat-inducing heat—though it oddly falls short on the fish sauce notes that would’ve helped support its impactful punch. If anything, its no-holds-barred piquancy makes it your best bet for balancing out oily or very fatty meats (e.g., BBQ pork neck) or for cooking the greasiest, most hangover-friendly bowl of kimchi fried rice with.
Dae Jang Gum
Dae Jang Gum’s is the sole one of the bunch that comes sold in pouches rather than glass jars. It’s strong in smell, with a definitive fishy note (likely from the salted shrimp in the ingredients) that really whets the appetite. The kimchi within notably taste less salty and feel more crisp and juicy versus the others, giving us the impression it’s a relatively younger kimchi that hasn’t been curing for as long. It nonetheless delivers a good amount of pungency, subtle sourness, and a mid-level heat.
Greengate contains a generous amount of liquid inside the bottle, with a saltier, garlicky, and onion-y taste that ends with a good amount of heat. The said flavors penetrate well into the cabbage as well, leaving it a tad saltier than we’d like—but with a deeply pungent, garlicky backbone that works well with its mid-level tang, “fermented”-tasting fizzle on the tongue, and powerful wham of spiciness toward the end.
Seoul Kimchi has a mildly ammonia-y aroma as you open the bottle. It’s not too sour or salty at the onset, but it goes big on the fish sauce-y pungency, and you get a definite “fermented” fizz and depth that makes it go particularly well with grilled beef. The heat builds up gradually and it never gets too unbearably spicy, thus allowing the other flavors in the mix to shine.
The Verdict: Greengate
Greengate’s good balance of salty, pungent, and spicy makes it a winning kimchi for us not just for snacking on plain, but also for pairing with meats (it makes an impact without being overpowering) and cooking into other dishes.
A close contender is Seoul. It’s not quite as spicy, but has a similar tongue-tickling complexity that we’ve come to love.