Is Kimchi Vegan? The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Vegan Kimchi

Red kimchi in a bowl

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Spicy, sour, and salty, kimchi will certainly take your taste buds for a ride. This Korean cuisine staple is made by the process of lacto-fermentation—similar to pickles and sauerkraut—using basic ingredients like cabbage, radish, chili, and salt.

Most kimchi recipes use a base of napa cabbage and Korean radish along with various seasonings like Korean dried chili powder (also known as gochugaru or kochukaru), scallions, garlic, ginger, and salted seafood.

In Korea, kimchi is typically served as a side or a condiment, but can also be cooked and sauteed, added to soups, and incorporated into all kinds of dishes. In fact, it’s generally considered one of the most important elements of Korean cuisine and has been around for thousands of years.

Unfortunately for those following a vegan diet, kimchi is more often than not flavored with some type of fermented seafood product, such as fish sauce or salted shrimp.

Did You Know?

Eating a diet high in fermented foods like kimchi has been proven to increase microbiome diversity and lower inflammation on the molecular level. A study conducted by researchers at Stanford School of Medicine found that the levels of 19 inflammatory proteins in blood samples decreased among trials in healthy adults assigned to a high fermented diet.

Why Most Kimchi Is Not Vegan

While most people probably think of the red, bite-sized napa cabbage variety when they think of kimchi, the dish can also use larger chunks of radish, cucumber, mustard leaf, or even be prepared as part of a drinkable broth. You’re likely to find both red and white kimchi at your local specialty grocery store, the latter of which often includes white radish and no spice.

Although kimchi is made primarily of vegetables, most varieties include seafood as one of the ingredients. The two most common are fish sauce and salted shrimp, but some recipes call for elements like oysters, anchovies, or sardines; it’s really what helps give kimchi its signature flavor and level of glutamic acid—the chemical responsible for that complex “umami” sensation.

Another questionable ingredient often found in kimchi is cane sugar. The natural sweetener is usually filtered using bone char, which many vegans object to.

However, that doesn’t mean vegan kimchi isn’t available, or even that it’s hard to find. Apart from making it yourself, more and more popular kimchi brands are creating vegan versions of their famous recipes that don’t include seafood or cane sugar.

Treehugger Tip

Some common, non-vegan kimchi ingredients might be difficult to spot for those who aren’t familiar with Asian cuisine. For instance, saeujeot is a type of small, salted fermented shrimp that’s sometimes added to kimchi to add a deep umami flavor.

Types of Vegan Kimchi

A number of companies offer vegan-friendly options that omit any type of seafood in their recipes. Mother in Law’s kimchi, one of the most popular brands out there, features two vegan varieties made without fish sauce or bone broth. These include the vegan table cut napa cabbage kimchi made with gochugaru chili and the MUU daikon radish kimchi made with crunchy daikon radish.

Another famous brand, Nasoya, is made authentically in Korea using only vegan ingredients: Napa cabbage, radish, red pepper powder, pear, garlic, and salt. 

Lucky Foods also offers two certified vegan kimchi varieties: Seoul original and spicy. Note that the brand offers these flavors as both vegan and non-vegan options, so be sure to look for the certification logo on the label.

Fermented foods specialist Wildbrine offers three vegan kimchi varieties: miso horseradish, Korean, and turmeric. All three recipes rely on natural ingredients to provide strong flavors, including red miso, tamari, ginger, and spices.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is kimchi a probiotic?

    Because kimchi is a fermented food, it naturally contains probiotics—similar to yogurt and sauerkraut. The lactic acid bacteria that aids in the fermentation process is derived from raw ingredients like cabbage, radish, garlic, and ginger.

  • Is kimchi spicy?

    Most recipes for kimchi include dried chili powder, but there are also varieties (like white kimchi) that aren’t spicy. Some even argue that the milder white kimchi predates the spicy kimchi that’s more well known today.

  • How long does kimchi last?

    Kimchi is a living probiotic food, meaning it will continue to ferment over time. Because of this, factors like temperature and oxygen will impact the shelf life and longevity of the product.

    According to Mother in Law’s, the kimchi will take on a more earthy, tangy taste as it matures and the heat of the chilies dissipates, lasting for up to 12 months or longer if kept cool in the refrigerator and away from oxygen.