Westerners Puzzle Over Korean 'Kimchi Crisis'

With some bemusement and concern

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It makes for great headlines. Due partly to poor growing conditions, the price of cabbage in South Korea is skyrocketing, resulting in a "kimchi crisis." South Koreans, used to getting three doses a day of the chili-treated, fermented crucifer are not pleased. The New York Times' Mark McDonald reports that "kimchi has become so expensive that some restaurants in the capital no longer offer it free as a banchan, or side dish, a situation akin to having an American burger joint charge for ketchup, although decidedly more calamitous here." As a result, many families will be sadly forgoing the "traditional rite of autumn"--making kimchi in the home: "Some families can go through a couple of hundred heads of cabbage, and it's not unusual for all the bathtubs and sinks in a house to be filled with bobbing cabbages as they are washed, soaked and brined." Of course, the Western debate on the "kimchi crisis" has had its fair share of quips at the expense of distraught Koreans. But there are also a few noteworthy observations.

  • That's a Lot of People Who Make Their Own Kimchi, notices blogger Erik Loomis, particularly "for a such an industrialized and modern country." Granted, continues Loomis, "few peoples in the world have such devotion to a particular food as Koreans do for kimchi, but this is pretty remarkable. What's the equivalent in the U.S.--could we survive a shortage of Cheetos?" On a serious note, he observes that climate change played a role in the shortage, and that "in the long-term, these sorts of climate-change related agricultural failures will create real challenges for the world."

  • Shows the Difference Between Cultures  Food and agriculture blogger Craig Goodwin also wonders what the American equivalent would be, and comments that, when looking at this "traditional autumn rite" of kimchi making, "maybe Thanksgiving turkey comes the closest, but my basic observation is that there is no equivalent. American food culture has been plowed under like a chemically enhanced, genetically modified field of corn. There is not much of an identifiable food culture." By contrast, "kimchi is so much a part of Korean life that the kimchi crisis warranted a response from the government as if they were talking about the supply of gasoline or fresh water."
  • Benefits China  Korea is opening itself to imported cabbage as a result of the crisis, and Laurie Burkitt at The Wall Street Journal's China Realtime Report points out that "some Chinese farmers will likely prosper from Korea's craving for kimchi." At the same time, "China's economic planners ... aren't so eager to have Korea's inflation spill into their markets."
  • Rising Prices No Laughing Matter  "The country has not yet seen rioting in the streets, as happened in Mexico's tortilla crisis of 2007," reports The Economist. "Nor are trenchcoat-clad men whispering down dark alleys, 'psst, want some cabbage?' However, Korea's kimchi crisis is a worry, not just for cabbage-munchers but policymakers. Food-price inflation--as in much of the world--is a serious matter."
  • Europeans Frankly Perplexed by Kimchi Craze  At the end of his otherwise serious New York Times report, Mark McDonald indulges in some anecdotes about just how seriously Koreans take kimchi:
A gathering was held in Seoul last week to promote Korean food, with European master chefs coming in for panels and demonstrations. Michel Troisgros, the renowned French chef from Roanne, listened to a Korean official hold forth on the wonders of fermentation and an ambitious project to export Korean foods like kimchi.

"I think you have to stop talking about fermentation," Mr. Troisgros told the man. "It's not sexy."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.