Travel Stories »

Kimchi in Korea – the Pickled Cabbage Obsession

The food that’s just waiting to become a fart.

Kimchi may indeed be “the cabbage you can ravage with the chilli paste taste,” but, honestly, it just isn’t that great. Sure, taste is subjective and all but kimchi in Korea is an obsession.

Even in America people vary their fast-food diets. One day it’s fried chicken and the next it’s hamburgers, and sometimes it’s a pizza. But in Korea, kmchi is on the table every day.

I’d never even heard of the stuff until I came to Korea, and when I was presented with a side dish of it at dinner, I thought, Hmm, this is ok. It was palatable, but nothing special. The next day I was given it for lunch, then dinner. And the next day. And the next.

But kimchi is everywhere in Korea and ignoring it won’t make it go away. I teach kids English and we often end up discussing food, always an easy subject:

“What did you have for breakfast?”

“Kimchi.”

“Lunch?”

“Kimchi.”

“Dinner?”

“Kimchi.”

I recently asked my class to write an essay about their favourite food, and most of them were about kimchi. One of them was the word “kimchi” written two hundred times on a piece of paper.

Koreans literally eat kimchi three meals a day. It will be in the main meal and also as a side dish. I checked the stats and found that the average Korean eats 77 pounds of it a year.

And there’s no escaping it outside of school either. I hop on the subway and there it is: the smell of a hundred people who’ve eaten fermented cabbage for three meals that day, and three the day before, farting, burping, coughing and breathing kimchi into the air.

Whenever I leave Korea, I yearn for a kimchi free day, and usually I get it. However, when I was in Fukuoka and Beijing, the local Korean populations were so kimchi-crazy that supermarkets and restaurants had bags of the stuff rotting away, waiting to become a fart. More irritating, however, is at the ferry port in Busan, waiting for my boat ride out of kimchi-country, and there is a store that sells giant discount bags of kimchi for Koreans leaving Korea. There’s no way they could go a day without kimchi, so they stock up enough of it to last their journey. Suitcases bulge with kimchi, and as I get on the ferry it becomes apparent that lunch is making its way into the atmosphere after a few hours in the digestive tract.

Where must a guy go to get away from kimchi? The Korean Space Research Institute developed “space kimchi” to accompany Korean astronauts on their journeys away from kimchi-world! Imagine the smell of a space station once the kimchi arrives… A kimchi-fart in a space suit…

But in honestly, it’s funny watching Korean defend kimchi. They’ll throw science about, claiming kimchi is healthy. Which it might well be… when eaten occasionally. When eaten three meals a day it has a serious contribution to the development of gastric cancer, something in which Koreans lead the world. A Korean person is ten times more likely to suffer from gastric cancer than an American.

Korean scientists, as always, are backing the old wives in terms of bizarre theories. Kimchi apparently keeps SARS away, and is rumoured to stop one from contracting AIDS. In 2005, at Seoul University, researchers fed kimchi to thirteen birds with avian flu (poor defenceless things) and allegedly eleven of them recovered. Now they say it lowers stress in mice, and is being available in anti-cancer, anti-obesity and anti-aging varieties, thanks to over half a million of the government’s dollars, even in these dark days of the plummeting won.

The library of Korean propaganda relating to kimchi is expanding at a rate of three hundred books and dissertations per year. Writing about the negative qualities of the national dish is something that just isn’t done, given that most of the research is funded by the crooked government. The well-respected article that exposes kimchi’s unhealthy side was published in Beijing, because in Korea it never would have seen the light of day.

Strangely enough, it was written entirely by Korean scientists.

Maybe I’m not as alone as I thought.

David Wills

David Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine, literary journal devoted to the Beat Generation.