When it comes to popular pickled condiments, Germans have sauerkraut, Indians have achaar and Koreans have kimchi. The fiery fermented food is South Korea’s national dish, the tradition of making and sharing it is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco that “reaffirms Korean identity”, and the dish is an integral part of every meal – so much so that when South Korea launched its first astronaut to space in 2008, it sent kimchi with him.
But in recent weeks, South Korea’s claim to one of its most popular cultural and culinary exports has come under threat.
It all started late last month when the Swiss-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) posted new regulations for the making of pao cai, a similar pickled vegetable dish from Sichuan, China. As BBC News reported, although the ISO listing clearly states “this document does not apply to kimchi,” China’s state-run Global Times newspaper quickly pounced on the certification, claiming it as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”. South Korea’s agricultural ministry dismissed the Chinese claims, releasing a statement saying, “It is inappropriate to report [the pao cai certification] without differentiating kimchi from pao cai of China’s Sichuan.”
Yet, that response didn’t go far enough for many Koreans, who leapt to social and local media to defend their country’s quintessential comfort food and call out China for appropriation. “China is even trying to steal Kimchi from Korea,” tweeted one user. The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, called China’s claim “its latest bid for world domination”. And in the past three weeks, this online “kimchi war” has rekindled a decades-long feud between the neighbouring nations that encompasses everything from fishing rights in the Yellow Sea to a K-Pop band member’s recent comments about China’s role in the Korean War.
The battle over who owns kimchi may come down to a simple misunderstanding that has gotten lost in translation
But it seems that the battle over who owns kimchi may come down to a simple misunderstanding that has gotten lost in translation.
According to Dr Sojin Lim, the co-director of the Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, Korean kimchi is often served in China under the name pao cai, and – to add further confusion – China has its own fermented dish that it also calls pao cai, which is the dish that recently won ISO certification.
“Pao cai is quite different from kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage, [made with] very different kinds of spicy [and] non-spicy [ingredients]. But this pao cai, which China claims as a part of kimchi, is a pickled vegetable, which is something very different from kimchi,” Lim told BBC Newshour. She added: “Pao cai tastes really different, [and is made] really different. But for Chinese understanding, kimchi is part of pao cai, so that is the starting point of this argument.”
There should be no dispute about the origin of kimchi
For many South Koreans, the very notion that another nation could lay claim to its national dish touches a nerve that goes beyond food.
“There should be no dispute about the origin of kimchi,” said Syuoung Park, executive chef at New York’s two-Michelin-starred Korean restaurant Jungsik. “Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that originated over 3,000 years ago. The tradition of making kimchi started as a way to ferment and store vegetables during the cold winter when many Koreans died of starvation. It is the most ubiquitous side dish on a table every day [and] a long-standing cultural heritage of Korea. I hope our culture no longer becomes distorted.”
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According to Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the book The Food of Sichuan and a Chinese culinary expert, “Pao cai literally just means ‘vegetables pickled in brine’,” and while kimchi is layered with ground chillies and fermented with seafood, neither of those are present in Sichuanese pao chi. Yet, just as many Koreans eat kimchi every day – even while orbiting the Earth – Dunlop explains that pao cai holds an equally strong place in the hearts and stomachs of Sichuanese.
“It’s incredibly important. It’s an essential part of the Sichuanese traditional diet,” she said. “Normally with every meal, you’ll have a little bit of pickles – perhaps radish, cabbage, whatever is in season. If you have breakfast in Sichuan, a typical thing to have is a thin rice porridge with a steamed bun or bread element, and then pickles. The function of the pickles is xiafan, which means “to send the rice down”. You eat these plain foods, and you need something tasty to send the rice down. It’s the same thing with an evening meal. It’s very much a part of Sichuanese everyday life.”
Interestingly, just as some Italians believe that “true” Neapolitan pizza is only made with San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic plains near Mt Vesuvius, Dunlop explained that Sichuanese pao cai aficionados believe the pickling brine used to make the condiment should ideally be made with salt that comes from the Sichuanese town of Zigong, where it has been mined for more than 2,000 years.
There are countless other wonderful pickled vegetables throughout China that the outside world knows nothing about
According Clarissa Wei, a Taiwan-based journalist who travelled to Sichuan earlier this year to profile how local residents prepare pao cai, this murky marinade is what really distinguishes the two regional condiments.
“The biggest difference is that Sichuan pickles (pao cai) use a brine of salt water and spices, whereas for kimchi, you massage the cabbage with salt and pickle it in its natural juices. Whole spices are added in the pao cai brine and the vegetable isn’t broken up completely during the pickling process,” Wei said.
So, if the two dishes are distinctly different, what is to make of China’s claim to kimchi?
“China absolutely loves to pounce on stories which say the Chinese were first. But in truth, it may be a bit more complicated than that,” Dunlop said. “China, Korea and Japan have amazing traditions of pickling, as do many other countries in the world. Everywhere in the world, people have thought of ways to make foods last longer. You have pickling and fermentation everywhere. Of course, there are local specialties and variations, but it’s very much a part of shared human culture. It’s absurd for anyone to claim they invented pickling!”
Yet, while Unesco, South Koreans and most discerning diners around the world would be quick to characterise kimchi as Korean, Dunlop argues that China likely won this most recent fermentation feud. By The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters and other international outlets reporting on the recent row, countless readers who had never before heard of pao cai are now aware of it – a fact that is evident by this Google Trends graph showing searches for the Sichuanese dish at a five-year high.
“Regardless of what anyone thinks about this claim, the Sichuanese have scored a huge PR victory,” Dunlop said. “Pao cai is a wonderful Sichuanese tradition, but only in Sichuan. There are countless other wonderful pickled vegetables throughout China that the outside world knows nothing about.”
Perhaps China can leave kimchi to the Korean experts and use this moment to introduce the world to its many other mouth-watering ways to “send the rice down”.
Food Wars is a series from BBC Travel that invites you to feel the heat when passions flare around beloved dishes that shape a culture’s identity.
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