Kimchikan—Sadly, an underwhelming Kimchi Museum
4-6 floor, 35-4 Insadong, in the MARU Korean Cultural Space. Open 10-6, www.kimchikan.com
Anguk Station Line 3, exit 6.
This museum was very hard to find. If you walk down Insadong Street from Anguk Station, after about a 10-minute stroll look out for a sign pointing down an alley on the right that says “K Food” and on the side of a building a little into the alley you’ll see a large mural of a Napa cabbage and some red peppers. Go up the metal stairs to level 4.
This small museum, previously called the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum, was founded in 1986 and used to be in the COEX area south of the Han. It moved to Insadong in April 2015 and changed its name to Kimchikan. Why?
In traditional Korean society, the place for making side dishes was called ‘Chankan’, the place for preparing the king’s meals was ‘Surakan’ and the place for keeping foodstuffs was called ‘Gotkan’. They took the suffix ‘kan’ from these words and created the name ‘Kimchikan’, hoping that visitors will be able to feel and experience diverse aspects and stories of Kimchi in this place.
Basically, the museum sings the praises of pickled, peppery cabbage and other vegetables and their wondrous benefits.
Kimchi is such an integral part of Korean cuisine and culture that a museum to explain Kimchi seems like a great idea. Many foreigners have heard of it, or even tasted it, but most don’t know the history of this dish, nor how it was made in the past and how it is made today.
It was apparently chosen by CNN in March 2015 as one of the world’s top 11 food museums, and the only one in Korea. However, I found this museum very disappointing. They advertise that they show all kinds of educational materials, but in reality there are very few. There are a few old kimchi storage pots in the first room, then a tiny “lab” with a couple of interactive screens telling about the good bacteria found in this kind of fermentation. Upstairs is a wall with a timeline of other countries and various fermented foods, which does show how old the concept is. You can watch a couple of short movies (English sub-titles) showing group kimchi-making in a rural village. On this level there is also a kitchen where you can sign up for kimchi-making classes.
Upstairs also (you need the bar code on your entrance ticket to open the door) is a small room with jars of some different kinds of kimchi. Up another flight of stairs is another small room with a fridge with a sample of the day you can taste (use your ticket bar code to open the door). In another larger room is a large illuminated wall with the names of different fermented foods in different countries and different types of healthy diets and types of cooking. Tapping on a name brings up a few photos of each. When the screen changes, it’s a collage of foods and people eating around the world (but this is really about fermentation, and not just kimchi). This was probably the highlight of the “tour” for me.
I’ve had many Korean students over the years, who’ve explained much about their culture,
including kimchi. We’ve also visited Korea before and Korean friends took us on a road trip to Andong area, where we saw an old hanok village, plus other old-style houses that still have huge kimchi jars outside—-in the past, people buried these jars of kimchi in the ground to keep them at a constant temperature over the winter.
So, I was surprised that this museum didn’t have many of these old jars, or the traditional utensils used to make kimchi, nor information about the modern kimchi fridges that many families have. There was also very little about the different kinds of kimchi, the different vegetables, the different ways of preparing them, the fact that still today many women get together in the fall to make big batches of kimchi etc. There was no mention of white kimchi, nor water kimchi.
The web site says there are historical books, paintings, and writings about the history of kimchi, but they were not very evident (not to me, anyway).
Entrance was 5,000 won, which includes a brief audio guide.
So, I’d say that if you have no prior knowledge of kimchi you might get some benefit from visiting the Kimchikan. But, otherwise not. There’s a small exhibit at the National Folk Museum that gives about the same amount of information I’d say.
Because kimchi is so important in Korea, I will cover it separately in more detail later.