Koreanism of the Month – Food (2): Kimchi!


Koreans have a special reverence for the premier national food item – kimchi. There is space kimchi and even a Kimchi Research Institute in Pusan.

Kimchi seems to have a acquired a curative power akin to the snake oil tonics of the Old West. Kimchi is good for just about every ailment – the common cold, depression, fatigue, whatever. But note that these are fairly generalized conditions for which some exercise or fresh air might help too.

More over-the-top are the assertions that kimchi will protect against specific diseases – including bird flu or SARS. At this point, it becomes increasingly silly. A good friend recently told me that kimchi will protect me against swine flu! The obvious methodological problem of assertion without the slightest shred of evidence is less interesting (we do that all the time in conversation) than the knee-jerk reaction of Koreans to defend/promote kimchi regardless of circumstance. That clearly betrays a deep national affinity or cultural reflex. (This made me think of the GOP’s tax-cut reflex: no matter the state of the economy or budgets, tax cuts are always good for you.)

Does that reflex mean anything serious beyond cute stories of kimchi refrigerators? Honestly, probably not. I find it vaguely uncomfortable when Koreans tell me kimchi defines them. I always respond that actually your long battle for democracy and prosperity since 1953 does, or at least should. Kimchi is simply a food. Perhaps that is the response of a citizen from a polyglot immigrant culture like the US. There is no ‘national food’ in the US with the clout of kimchi here. I geuss if you are from a more traditionalist, ancient communitarianism, all sorts of everyday things like food, clothes, or even hairstyles have a national symbol status.

I am also a bit surprised. Kimchi, basically fermented cabbage or radish, is a curious choice for a national food. It is hardly the most tasty food in Korean cuisine. I can think of lots of other dishes I would promote first (Korean BBQ is excellent). And certainly, it is a very acquired taste that takes time to get used to. I have never seen kimchi in the West; my sense is that it would not travel well outside East Asia. Westerners in Korea generally greet kimchi with a shrug. Its ok, but not that different that any other vegetable side or salad. This generally miffs Koreans, who seem bewildered by Western indifference.

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