South Korea struggles to serve up national dish 'kimchi'

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Feb 07 2023 08:45 AM

Participants prepare kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of spicy fermented cabbage and radish, during a kimchi making festival at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul. Anthony Wallace, AFP 
Participants prepare kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of spicy fermented cabbage and radish, during a kimchi making festival at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul. Anthony Wallace, AFP 

South Korea has been forced to sharply increase imports of "kimchi" — arguably the most important dish on every family's mealtime table — giving rise to concerns about the quality of foreign versions of the fiery fermented staple.

Government statistics show that South Korea imported kimchi with a value of $169.4 million (€157.7 million) in 2022, up 20.4% over the previous year, Yonhap News reported.

That increase was the sharpest since a rise of nearly 54% in 2010.

A powerful combination of fermented cabbage, salt and hot peppers, kimchi is an indispensable part of the Korean diet and the nation consumes more than 2 million tons of it every year.

Most often served as a side dish, it can also be incorporated into soups and stews, with studies indicating that more than 90% of South Koreans eat kimchi every day.

Critical part of national cuisine

And while it remains a critical part of the national cuisine, changes in society have inevitably impacted the dish. Traditionally, women would gather to prepare the ingredients and start the natural fermentation process, ensuring that there would be sufficient to feed the family through the bitter cold winter months.

Today, that tradition has faded and most people purchase pre-prepared kimchi during their regular visits to the supermarket.

Consumers have largely been able to rely on domestic sources for their kimchi needs, although that has been changing. A couple of bad seasons have impacted cabbage crops, increasing prices and reducing availability, but the broader rise in prices — everything from vehicle fuel to electricity and the cost of ingredients — has made it harder for producers to remain competitive.

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Squeezed by rising costs and falling numbers of consumers, restaurants have been quick to switch to imported kimchi.

"The price of absolutely everything has been rising for the last year and it's the same for domestic kimchi manufacturers," said Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University — and someone who can remember making kimchi with her grandmother as a young child.

"On top of that, we have had a couple of bad summers that have badly affected the cabbage harvest," she told DW. "There are also the other ingredients that have become more expensive and it's a labor-intensive process, so it is not really a surprise that it is cheaper to produce kimchi abroad and then import it."

Verifying the quality

Lim says she usually purchases her kimchi from farmers' markets or online stores so she can verify where it comes from, and she does not mind paying a little more if that gives her peace of mind about the quality.

"I think a lot of people have a low level of trust for kimchi and other food that is imported, particularly factory-made food from places like China," she said.

"People worry about sanitation levels and the quality of the ingredients they use, although there is no question that it is much cheaper."

The concern about imports was heightened in 2021 when South Korean media released images of a vast pool of kimchi being stirred by an excavator and a partially naked man wading through the concoction.

Koreans also became angry when Chinese state media claimed the dish had originated in China, triggering a sharp exchange of opinions in the two nations' media and online chat rooms.

"When China tried to claim that kimchi was Chinese, I was really angry," said Eunkoo Lee, joint founder of a Seoul-based NGO that helps North Korean defectors in the South.

Koreans' 'soul food'

"Kimchi is our soul food in Korea, our national dish, and there is never a meal in our family when kimchi is not on the table," she said. "I would go as far as to say that if there was no kimchi with the meal, I do not think I would be able to eat."

This obsession with the tangy dish means that many Koreans who travel overseas for a vacation make sure they take a supply to tide over their needs for as long as they are away, said Lee, of Freedom Speakers International.

Lee added that "kimjang," the process of preparing kimchi that involves washing and salting the vegetables, adding garlic, red peppers and cured fish before they are left to ferment in clay pots, is also a significant memory from her childhood — and she still relies on her mother's home-made kimchi instead of taking a chance on packaged kimchi from a supermarket.

"It's the best and that's why I do not worry about having to eat imported kimchi."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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