Is China laying claim to Kimchi, too? Some South Koreans think so

Youmi Kim and Mike Ives, The New York Times

Posted at Dec 03 2020 11:41 AM | Updated as of Dec 03 2020 12:33 PM

Is China laying claim to Kimchi, too? Some South Koreans think so 1
A kimchi-making festival in Goesan, South Korea, on Nov. 7, 2020. Much of the factory-made kimchi eaten in South Korea now comes from China. Jun Michael Park/The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — Fermented vegetables are delicious — on this point, many people from China and South Korea can agree. But for some social media users in the two countries, the culinary goodwill ends there.

A spat is raging this week over a Chinese state tabloid’s claim that China had “led” the development of an international standard for paocai, or pickled vegetables. In South Korea, the claim was seen as misleading because in the Chinese language, paocai also refers to kimchi — the fermented cabbage dish that plays an integral role in Korean cuisine.

It wasn’t clear whether the ambiguity was unintentional or an example of the trolling for which the tabloid, Global Times, is famous. But it prompted ripostes from South Korean officials and newspapers, along with a slew of barbed social media comments about the finer points of pickled cabbage.

“If China plagiarizes the fermentation process of kimchi in the future, then South Korea’s traditional culture may disappear,” one anxious user wrote on Naver, a popular social media platform in South Korea.

The spat opens another front in a tussle for soft power between two countries whose relations sometimes sour over weightier matters, like Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program and the Korean War’s legacy.

It also touches on cultural sore points in South Korea: Nearly 40% of the factory-made kimchi consumed there is imported from China, and the tradition of making the dish locally is fading as Korean families eat more non-Korean cuisine.

The kimchi spat began last week, when a global regulator based in Switzerland released a draft definition of the “categories” and “requirements” of paocai. That is the name in Mandarin for a kimchi-like dish of fermented vegetables that is popular in the western Chinese province of Sichuan.

The regulator, the International Organization for Standardization, typically issues such guidelines to ensure that products and services in one country can be used in the industrial processes of another. In this case, it said that a lack of “unified and explicit product quality and safety guarantees” in the paocai industry “greatly limits the international trade and circulation of paocai products.”

The ISO said specifically that its definition “does not apply to kimchi.” But in an article over the weekend, Global Times, which is fiercely nationalistic, said the new standard proved that China had set an “industry benchmark” for “the international paocai market” — a term that essentially includes kimchi.

The tabloid’s needling, if that’s what it was, touched a nerve in South Korea, where many people feel threatened by China’s increasingly assertive presence in the region. Some social media users accused Global Times of cultural appropriation.

With South Korean “cultural content expanding its influence on a global scale, it seems that China is making efforts to claim that such content was traced to them,” Seo Kyoung-duk, a professor at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, told the Yonhap news agency, echoing a chorus of online commentary.

South Korea’s Agriculture Ministry said in a statement Sunday that the ISO’s paocai standard was “completely not related to our kimchi,” adding that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had published a definition of kimchi in 2001.

“It is inappropriate to report without differentiating our kimchi from paocai,” the ministry said.

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Sandrine Tranchard, a spokeswoman for the ISO, said in an email that the organization typically develops standards based on requests from “industry or other stakeholders,” and that its technical committees include experts from industry, consumer groups, academia, governments and nonprofits.

“We cannot comment on the food or cultural heritage,” she said of the paocai standard.

The spat is hardly the first in Asia over a perceived attempt to lay claim, directly or otherwise, to another country’s tradition.

In 2018, for example, when Singapore announced a plan to ask UNESCO to recognize its street-food vendors as an “intangible heritage,” critics in neighboring Malaysia essentially said that their vendors were better — and that much of Singapore’s cuisine came from Malaysia in the first place. Indonesia had a similar quarrel with Malaysia over batik, the textile-dyeing process.

South and North Korea also campaigned separately to put the kimchi-making season, a centuries-old tradition known as “kimjang,” on UNESCO’s intangible heritage register. The agency agreed to both Koreas’ requests.

Kimchi belongs to an international family of pickled food that includes paocai, tsukemono (from Japan) and sauerkraut (from Germany), said Cho Jung-eun, a director at the World Institute of Kimchi, a research institute financed by the South Korean government.

Cho said that when the FAO published its kimchi definition in 2001, “China was not interested in kimchi at all, and kimchi was not produced in China at that time.” It was only after about 2003 that South Koreans began moving to China to build kimchi factories, she added, and later still that a local market for the dish developed within China.

Cho said that kimchi is different from its pickled cousins because of its distinctive blend of garlic, ginger and red pepper powder.

The FAO’s 2001 definition says that kimchi consists of “Chinese cabbage” and other vegetables that are “trimmed, cut, salted and seasoned before fermentation.” A country’s decision to formally accept such definitions is voluntary, and the FAO does not adjudicate disputes about how to interpret them. The agency declined to comment Tuesday.

Some Chinese users have been striking a conciliatory note, saying on social media that kimchi and “Sichuan kimchi” are both delicious — or even that “our paocai” is not as tasty as its Korean counterpart.

But others are not letting go.

“Sichuan’s is the real kimchi,” a user wrote Monday on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform in China. “South Korea’s version is merely pickles.”

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