Kimchi is the lifeblood of Korea. It is impossible to overstate how important a thrice-daily bowl of the fiery, fermented red cabbage is to the Korean worker. It is the gasoline and the Valvoline that keeps her running, the alpha and the omega of peninsular cuisine. It is steamed over tofu, fried into rice, wrapped around beef, and boiled into stew. Its medicinal properties are rumored to run the gamut from curing hangovers to curing cancer. Take away Korea's kimchi and the whole country may just up and walk into the sea.
Yet there is a crisis in Kimchi Land. An invasion of foreign kimchi is marauding through the country, pillaging and robbing the nation of its culinary dignity. Though no Korean would dare admit it into their homes, kimchi from China has become the norm in restaurants and cafeterias across the country.
Joe McPherson, an American-born Korean food expert who runs the ZenKimchi blog, says, "Kimchi aficionados will claim that you can taste the terroir in the ingredients." But he argues that if the ingredients are the same—usually napa cabbage, red pepper, garlic, salt, and fish or shrimp sauce—then the taste is also the same.
Instead, the issue is one of national pride.
"Since kimchi is so closely tied to Korean identity, the thought of eating a foreign-made kimchi feels like sacrilege," McPherson says.
Kim Jae-hwan, senior researcher in charge of international market research and export support at the World Institute of Kimchi, says Chinese kimchi is simply too cheap for restaurants not to use.
"The poor business environment for restaurants is a key reason for selecting cheap, Chinese-made kimchi," Kim says. Restaurants need that "competitive edge" in a saturated market where barely 17 percent of restaurants last more than five years.
Even considering the costs of shipping it across the sea, Chinese-made kimchi is still two to five times cheaper than the homemade varieties. At On-se-mi-ro, an online shop, ten kilos of Korean kimchi goes for the equivalent of $27. But ten kilos of the Chinese stuff is $15.
Over at Hana Foods, another online retailer, it doesn't even compete. Ten kilos of Korean-made kimchi is about $42, while the same amount of Chinese kimchi is a rock-bottom $9.
Finance & Development, a magazine published by the International Monetary Fund, says that since 2006, Korea has imported over $100 million worth of Chinese kimchi per year. (With the exception of 2009, when a strong Chinese renminbi cut imports.)
On the other hand, Korean kimchi exports to China are at virtually zero, thanks to a total Chinese ban on Korean kimchi. According to Chinese law, kimchi is classified as pickled, which means it can only have a minimal amount of bacteria in it. This means Korean kimchi can't be exported at all, since it is by definition a probiotic food, like yoghurt, containing hundreds of millions of lactic acid bacteria per gram.
Despite the Chinese ban, there is virtually no difference between Chinese-made kimchi and the domestic variety. "Chinese-made kimchi imported to the Korean market is mainly produced with a Korean recipe by Koreans in China," Kim says. "Therefore, there is no difference in taste between Korean-made and Chinese-made kimchi."
Gwangjang Market is the oldest traditional market in Seoul, and its loud and crowded corridors are ground zero for any Korean food experience. In one wing, old ladies in red aprons and elbow-length rubber gloves crouch over pails of kimchi, turning over pounds and pounds of the stuff for shoppers.
"Most Korean families don't eat Chinese kimchi at home," says the proprietor at Song Hwan Nay Kimchi, a small stall. "So I don't care about Chinese kimchi. My main customers are families."
Over at Sam Woo Su San Kimchi, the owner says her income has declined a little, but she isn't too concerned. She does, however, say Chinese kimchi isn't the same, and consumers would be wise to avoid it. "Chinese kimchi ingredients are questionable," she says. "And that makes a difference in quality."
Apart from the wounds to national pride, there are safety concerns over Chinese-made kimchi. Parasite eggs and high levels of lead have been found in Chinse-made kimchi. Food safety scandals are as regular as the seasons in China.
To get a feel for how deep the restaurant invasion had gone, I checked 20 restaurants in central Seoul to get a sense of who served, or admitted to serving, Chinese kimchi. Only two did, which makes one wonder where this $100 million worth of Chinese kimchi is going. McPherson says it's safe to assume that if you're ordering the $5 lunch special, that's Chinese kimchi in there, but that the more established restaurants will make their own. Though restaurants over a certain size are required to post the national origins of their kimchi (and their meat), many don't, or they post it in a location that's difficult to see.
Kim says a new voluntary labeling system is being introduced to get Korean restauranteurs to show their pride in serving Korean kimchi. The Kimchi Association of Korea has developed a logo that restaurants can display, advertising that their kimchi is made with "100-percent Korean ingredients."
"This system, as a reminder to consumers, is expected to be helpful in expanding consumption of Korean-made Kimchi using 100-percent Korean ingredients," Kim says.
Whether it will trump the power of kimchi at 80 cents per kilo remains to be seen.
"The Korean government and Korean organizations have been contributing a lot of money and effort into promoting Korean cuisine around the world," says McPherson. The results have run the gamut from kimchi tacos in LA to Chinese producers learning how to make Korea's signature dish.
"As its popularity grows, Korea will have less control over its own cuisine," McPherson says.