Kimchi paradox

Korea Times입력 2019-10-06

Koreans’ staple dish popular overseas, yet ‘so-so’ at home

By Kang Hyun-kyung

In July, Park Jong-cheol, a professor of herbal medicine resources at Sunchon National University in South Jeolla Province, discovered “something unexpected” in a cafeteria on a passenger ferry en route to the small Baltic state of Estonia from Sweden.

There was kimchi in a container, along with Western side-dishes, at the buffet-style restaurant.

“It was a nice surprise to find kimchi there,” Park said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Amused at seeing Koreans’ staple dish there, Park, a kimchi expert, decided to watch how the European passengers reacted to it.

“Some just saw it after opening the lid of the container without trying it; some smelled it; and some placed it on their plates to try it,” he said. “I had never thought Swedish or Estonian people would eat kimchi. Sweden and Estonia are far from Korea, so I presumed people there would have had few chances to try it. That’s why I didn’t expect the Korean side-dish would be served in a cafeteria on a ferry connecting the Nordic and Baltic states.”

Park, 64, said kimchi has become a de facto global food, noting he has seen for himself during his frequent overseas business trips that its popularity knows no borders.

In September, he published a book, “Kimchi Went Global: Kimchi Hallyu,” a collection of his newspaper columns and photos he has taken.

Over the past 15 years, he has done research about kimchi and given lectures to foreign nationals about authentic kimchi, its tradition, recipes and health benefits.
Previously, he served as president of the Kimchi Association and vice chairman of the Gwangju Kimchi Festival. Every year, he went to the local festival and photographed various kinds of kimchi presented there aiming to use them in his future book.

Czech people eat Korean stone pot bibimap (dol sot bibimbap) with kimchi and other side dishes at a Korean restaurant in Prague, Czech Republic in this July photo. / Courtesy of Park Jong-cheol

With the new publication, Park said, he aims to educate the public about the real value of kimchi, as he will retire from teaching next year.

“There are a lot of books about kimchi but many of them are just recipes,” he said. “It’s hard to find books about the authentic staple dish with thorough and accurate information. Kimchi is the brainchild of Koreans’ centuries-old wisdom to have healthy fermented food all year around. It originated from Korea. It’s ironic that the home country of kimchi has few books about its tradition and history.”

Park said kimchi has become quite popular overseas, sharing an anecdote he heard from the Paris-based kimchi businessman Lee Sang-yoon to back his claim.

Several years ago, Lee, the president of Yi-Jo Kimchi, got a phone call from a French consumer.

“I heard the caller was curious about which kimchi he was eating and he asked Mr. Lee for the recipe he followed when he made kimchi. He was asking if kimchi from Yi-Jo was based on a Seoul recipe or one for Jeolla Province kimchi,” Park said. “Even we Koreans don’t know how the two recipes are different from each other, but the French consumer knew. French people not only enjoy kimchi but some are very knowledgeable about it and know how to make it.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, kimchi exports have continued to increase over the past three years. In 2018, Korea exported 28,181 tons of kimchi to 68 countries, up 20 percent compared to the previous year. The number of countries has also increased. In 2017, 63 countries imported kimchi from Korea.

Japan is the largest importer, followed by the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and China.

K-pop and Korean TV dramas are believed to be two factors that have sparked a “kimchi boom” overseas.

The popularity overseas has created an uncommon phenomenon ― the “kimchi paradox,” which has persisted over the past decade after the side-dish went global.

Despite its popularity overseas, kimchi is losing ground at home.

Koreans don’t eat kimchi as much as they did in the past.

According to a 2017 survey by Gacheon University professor Lee Hae-jung, Koreans’ per capita consumption of kimchi dropped 22.3 percent between 2005 and 2015. In 2005, the average Korean consumed 123.9 grams of kimchi but 10 years later the figure fell to 96.3.

“It’s interesting to know that Korean teens nowadays don’t eat kimchi that much, but overseas K-pop fans, who are mostly teenagers, love the Korean dish,” Park said. “People tend to eat what they ate when they were kids because their taste buds were developed that way. The younger Koreans are not excited about kimchi probably because they didn’t eat it so much when they were raised. What’s happening overseas is that young K-pop fans eat kimchi. I believe they will consume the Korean dish even after they become adults.”

There is another distinct trend that supports this paradoxical kimchi consumption at home and abroad.

Korea imports more kimchi than it exports.

In 2018, Korea imported nearly 30,000 tons of kimchi from China. Imports have continued to grow since 2010 as local eateries wrestle with rising costs and strive to cut these as much as possible by serving cheaper kimchi to customers. Chinese kimchi is much cheaper than domestic kimchi, causing eateries to opt for the former.

Park Jong-cheol, professor of herbal medicine resources at Sunchon National University poses in this photo taken in July this year in the Balkan state of Estonia. / Courtesy of Park Jong-cheol

Park claimed that such a cost-cutting strategy hurts the image of Korea as the country of origin of quality kimchi.

He shared what he heard from a Korean-Chinese “kimchi businessman” based in Qingdao in the eastern part of Shandong Province in China’s Yellow Sea region, to elaborate on the fallout of profit-seeking eateries on the image of Korean kimchi.

“He told me his company used to export kimchi to Korea in the past but he no longer does business with Korea,” Park said, declining to give his name. “According to him, Koreans he has done business with were not interested in quality or sanitation and their priorities were always on price. Some even put forth a certain price ceiling and asked the manufacturer to produce kimchi under that amount. Sick and tired of Koreans, he said he is now doing business only with Japanese importers and believes that placing his focus on quality, rather than price, will help his business thrive.”

Park said Korea’s increasing kimchi imports could deal a blow to its image as home to quality kimchi, urging policymakers to come up with measures that can help cut production costs of homemade labels.