[FOUNTAIN]What’s Korea without its staple food?

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[FOUNTAIN]What’s Korea without its staple food?

South Koreans who have visited the North praise the taste of the kimchi there. They all say that it was neither the hot southern version with dark salted-fish juice nor the mild, watery Gaeseong style with few seasonings. The refreshing soup and crunchy cabbage makes the North Korean kimchi memorable. Maybe the visiting South Koreans were not familiar with other side dishes and appreciated kimchi more than usual.
So we thought the consistently tasty kimchi was made in a large factory. The homemakers in the North are often mobilized for labor, so they might not have time to make the time-consuming dish. But there is no kimchi factory in the North. In fact, Kim Jong-il instructed each household to create kimchi with a distinct style, and making kimchi has become a major domestic chore. Especially in the kimchi-making season, the procession of trucks and carts carrying cabbages and radishes is a quite a spectacle.
Nov. 7 is the beginning of winter in the lunar calendar, and the trucks loaded with cabbages, radishes, and other vegetables will fill the streets of Pyeongyang very soon. Until a few years ago, we could spot a very similar scene at the large markets in downtown Seoul. If we go back two decades, kimchi and its variations were the main items in Koreans’ dinner table. If we had several hundred cabbages pickled and fermented, we were quite ready for the upcoming winter. Kimchi was second only to rice as an important staple.
But in the South, more households buy kimchi than make it at home. Imports from China are increasing. We no longer have a kimchi-making season. A similar fate might be waiting for rice. As American-style fast food and prepared food have standardized our tables, many traditional tastes are disappearing. Perhaps our palates have been imprisoned by MacDonald’s.
Our food self-sufficiency rate has fallen to 27 percent, and we might be losing sovereignty in food, which is directly related with agriculture, farms and our culture.
The poet Kim Ji-ha wrote, “Kimchi is the shortcut to unification/ whether salty or watery/ radish kimchi or fish-juice kimchi/ the basic taste of kimchi is the same/ just as true lives are one and the same.” The times have changed; we need “self-reliance in kimchi” more than “unification of kimchi.”

by Chung Jae-suk

The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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