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BUSAN, South Korea -- Every foreigner has had enough of kimchi from time to time. Not necessarily grown tired of eating kimchi, but grown tired of hearing about it. Tired of hearing things like, Kimchi is good for you, Kimchi prevents swine flu, Kimchi prevents SARS, or Kimchi makes Korean women beautiful.

Kim Chi: Is it Really All That?

BUSAN, South Korea — Every foreigner has had enough of kimchi from time to time. Not necessarily grown tired of eating kimchi, but grown tired of hearing about it. Tired of hearing things like, Kimchi is good for you, Kimchi prevents swine flu, Kimchi prevents SARS, or Kimchi makes Korean women beautiful.

My favorite example of over-the-top kimchi pride was an editorial a few years ago in the Chosun Ilbo, in which the writer said one reason Korean women are so good at golf is because the dexterity required by golf is also the same required in making kimchi.

And in this time of worry over H1N1, kimchi’s mythical medical heroics against disease were embodied recently in a collection of animated shorts called Kimchi Warrior, circulating around the Internet, in which the caped Kimchi Crusader defeats enemies like Swine Flu, Mad Cow Disease, and Malaria.

The benefits of eating kimchi are frequently touted by studies, newspapers, and the guy sitting across from you. The fermentation of various spices delays the growth of gastric cancer cells, says one study by the Rural Development Administration in 2008. The vitamin B12 – in kimchi and other Korean foods – is said by Korean researchers to have anti-aging properties and again, it can prevent stomach cancer.

There was even the chairman of Gwangju’s Kimchi Festival quoted by Agence France-Presse in September saying: You know why there are so many beautiful women in Korea and Korean women have such smooth skin? It’s because they have been grown on kimchi.

It’s not only Korean sources talking-up kimchi. America’s Health Magazine named it one of the world’s five healthiest foods, pointing out the high levels of Vitamin A, B, C, and lactobacilli that aide digestion.

While that may all be true, it is the belief in the healing power of kimchi that invites criticism from some expats. It’s easy to sneer at a sign that reads Kimchi prevents Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 posted at the Kimchi Love Festival when, as we’ve read from teachers, that schools and authorities consider foreigners more at risk for swine flu than their kimchi-fed Korean coworkers.

The LA Times wrote about a study showing a link between stomach cancer and Kimchi. The article quoted a research paper on the high rate of gastric cancer in South Korea – ten times higher than in the United States – suggesting the cause is due to the enthusiastic consumption of kimchi and other fermented foods. One Korean researcher dodged a question telling the Times, I’m sorry, I can’t talk about the health risks of kimchi in the media. Kimchi is our national food, That so many English-language news articles in Korea bring up stomach cancer only to say that kimchi prevents it or delays its growth is telling.

Perhaps today’s intense pride is an effort to counter how poorly-received it was by foreigners during an era of Korean poverty three generations ago. A 1953 article from the Associated Press said: Kimchi is something that smells good to Koreans. To Americans, it just smells.

A US army captain was quoted in the piece: Try to imagine Limburger cheese several stages decayed – and you’ll get the idea. Other decades-old articles call kimchi Korean sauerkraut, spoiled cabbage, or jellied, rotten cabbage, and describe it as highly aromatic or pungent. An edition of Lonely Planet not too long ago called it a reasonable substitute for tear gas.

Learning to Love it

Koreans are inculcated with their kimchi pride at a young age. Here’s a remarkable passage from a middle school textbook I taught from: I often hear my friends say they don’t like kimchi. But that’s unbelievable. Remember, kimchi is our traditional food. And it’s a key to maintaining good health. If we Koreans don’t like to eat kimchi, who will? No one will. Then kimchi will die away. Would you be pleased with that? It’s time we stopped throwing away our traditional pride. So, let’s say to ourselves ‘There’s nothing I like more than kimchi,’ and eat kimchi every day. Thank you.

English-language articles from the last few decades all bemoan that the younger generations aren’t making kimchi, as Western food grows more popular. It has been important, too, to show how Korean kimchi actually is, and it doesn’t help that so much of it today is imported from China, or that when kimchi first gained international popularity, it was Japanese kimuchi winning the export battle.

Thus, it’s not surprising that a team of researchers claimed earlier this year to have found evidence that Koreans used red pepper spices centuries before the Japanese were believed to have originally introduced them to the peninsula in the 16th century.

Though known among those who served tours of duty in Korea in the 1950s, kimchi first seems to have attracted the attention of the Western world in the 1980s, before and after the Summer Olympics came to Seoul. A 1987 New York Times article said, No Two Kimchis Taste Alike. Going on to say, Culinary authorities hail kimchi as ‘King of the pickles,’ because it ferments of its own accord, without vinegar.

Its fiery juices carry the nation’s ‘’lifeblood,” cultural historians say. Its glory was certified when the South Korean government designated kimchi a national treasure.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the myth of kimchi grew at the same time South Korea did – back when it became more than just a country where people were stationed. And today, it’s not so important to dispute whether kimchi is all that or not. In fact, I would liken the debate to going back to my mom’s house and criticizing her chicken soup for whether or not it really is a good remedy for the common cold. As with kimchi, the restorative powers or the myths that surround it matter immeasurably less than our understanding of how important Koreans think it is. Enjoy.

Brian Deutsch is an American from Pittsburgh, PA teaching English in South Jeolla Province. You can reach him through his highly popular blog on Korea, Brian in Jeollonam-do. 





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