Kimchi wars continue as shirtless cabbage wrangler shocks consumers
Korea and China may have their differences, but there's one thing most people from both countries would agree on: Fermented vegetables are tasty. But when it comes to which country is the home of kimchi, the two countries have very different opinions.
The recent feud over kimchi between people in Korea and China first ignited after the Global Times, a fiercely nationalistic Chinese tabloid, reported on Nov. 29 that China has gained the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for pao cai, insisting that the new standard proves that the country had set an “industry benchmark” for “the international pao cai market.”
In the Chinese language, pao cai includes kimchi.
Korean anger has grown since then and reached its peak when Li Ziqi, popular Chinese YouTuber with nearly 15 million subscribers, in early January uploaded a video of herself making what appears to be kimchi with the hashtags #ChineseCuisine and #ChineseFood.
The preparation method and ingredient selection for pao cai differs from kimchi. Kimchi is prepared by first salting vegetables such as cabbage or radish, then seasoning the pickled vegetables with various other ingredients such as red pepper powder and green onions for secondary fermentation.
Pao cai, meanwhile, broadly refers to pickled vegetables, generally made by boiling the vegetables in a seasoned liquid. Pao cai does not involve a secondary fermentation process.
But the ingredients and method shown in Li’s video were what would be used for kimchi, not pao cai.
Zhou Sha, an announcer from broadcasting station in Liaoning, China, added fuel to the fire by describing kimchi as a “non-formal good” and insisted that it originated from one of the 55 Chinese ethnic groups.
Not only that, the encyclopedia on Baidu, China’s largest portal site, describes of kimchi as having a long cultural heritage in China and originating from China.
Adding insult to injury, it turns out that even Korean kimchi manufacturers, including Daesang, Pulmuone, and CJ CheilJedang, have been marketing kimchi as pao cai when they sell it in China. Online commentators in Korea say that by selling kimchi as pao cai, the Korean companies are undermining the entire argument.
The manufacturers say that isn't really the case.
Companies that wish to sell kimchi in China are required to use Chinese terms when identifying their products based on regulations from China’s food safety agency.
Unless the companies want to lose the Chinese market, they have to follow those rules.
“Chinese people do not really know the term 'kimchi',” said a spokesperson for one of the kimchi makers. “Companies who wish to run a business in China are required to use the word that Chinese people know when selling kimchi. We are just following the rules, there's nothing we can do about it.”
Professor Seo Kyoung-duk of Sungshin Women’s University says China’s kimchi claim is an attempt to keep its grip on the global market.
“In the past, people in foreign countries immediately thought of China when they thought of Asia or Asian culture,” Seo said. “But with the worldwide popularity of K-pop, K-drama and K-movie, the first thing that pops into their heads when they think of Asia now is Korea. Chinese people want to uphold the country’s position in the world market and have been expressing their patriotic sentiments in the wrong way.”
The growing popularity of kimchi may add to China's concern.
“More people across the globe are showing an interest in consuming healthy food that is helpful to increase their immunity after the coronavirus pandemic, and kimchi is definitely one of them,” Seo said. “As a considerable amount of cabbage used for kimchi comes from China, I believe China is taking this issue as an opportunity to cash in.”
According to the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation, Korea’s kimchi exports stood at 39,748 tons, or $144.51 million, last year. That’s a 37.6 percent increase from the previous year.
That figure is a new high, breaking a record set in 2012, when the country exported $106.6 million of kimchi.
Experts, however, say it is not the time to discuss which country is responsible for the issue. Instead, Korea needs to concentrate on asserting itself.
“China is a country that is very strict on languages,” said Byun Ji-won, professor of Chinese Language & Literature at Korea National Open University. “They call kimchi pao cai because that term is the only word that they know to describe pickled cabbage.
“It’s not the time to argue over which country is responsible. That benefits nobody. Korea must do something itself to make the fact that Korea is the origin country of kimchi clear to the world.”
Seo agrees with Byun.
“The Global Times, which is a nationalistic Chinese media outlet, misled people with false reports. And Chinese netizens are spreading them,” added Seo.
“The issue surrounding kimchi and pao cai is not something that netizens or companies from the two countries can deal with. I believe it’s time for the Korean government to take some action on the issue.”
But originality is not the only issue kimchi is facing recently.
Park Chul-man, who runs a gukbap, or soup served with rice, restaurant in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, hasn't been sleeping well because his restaurant has been losing customers continuously due to kimchi.
“Customers these days never eat kimchi that is served as side dishes at restaurants, but demand pickled radish instead,” Kim said. “Some customers even just leave the restaurant right after asking where our kimchi comes from. Sales have sharply plunged since the pandemic began, but now we barely have any customers. Gukbap restaurants get most of their customers in the morning, but I had only two customers today.”
According to Park, his restaurant serves kimchi made in China.
“I want to serve kimchi made in Korea, but it costs three or four times more,” Kim said. “The pandemic seems like it has no end as well. This really is a disaster.”
The movement to shun kimchi from China started after a video clip titled “Kimchi making in China” went viral online. In the video, a man who, at the very least, is topless, stirs cabbages floating in a sludge-colored pool of liquid, before throwing them into a rusty excavator.
The video, unsurprisingly, ruined a lot of people's appetites and made consumers wary of eating kimchi served at restaurants.
According to the Korea Customs Service, Korea’s kimchi imports amounted to some $152.42 million last year, and of that, 99 percent came from China.
Eight out of 10 restaurants in Korea serve kimchi made in China.
But while restaurants may get the majority of their kimchi from China, Koreans are still overwhelmingly eating kimchi made in Korea.
Korea consumes some 2 million tons of kimchi each year, and only 281,186 tons, or 15 percent, were imported from Chine in 2020, according to Korea Customs Service.
With public concerns increasing, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety held an expert advisory meeting on March 18 and made an official announcement that the cabbages shown in the video were not imported to Korea.
“China has banned the method of soaking cabbages in salt water since 2019, so the video must have been recorded before that,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. “It’s impossible that those cabbages were used in making kimchi in Korea. I feel sorry that such a video has been generating confusion among Koreans.”
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety also emphasized that it conducts thorough customs inspections when importing kimchi.
“Inappropriate cabbages are filtered out during customs inspections by checking the condition, taste and color,” said professor Im Moo-hyeog, who teaches food science and biotechnology at Daegu University, during the meeting. “Korea conducts additional examinations after the custom inspection as well.”
Starting from March 12, the ministry strengthened its customer inspection process for imported food.
BY CHEA SARAH [email@example.com]