When it comes to popular pickled condiments, Germans have sauerkraut, Indians have achaar, and Koreans have kimchi. Fiery fermented food is South Korea’s national dish, the tradition of its making and sharing is inscribed on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage which “reaffirms Korean identity”, and the dish is an integral part of every meal – so much so that when South Korea launched its first astronaut into space in 2008, it sent kimchi with it.
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 at the end of last month when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), based in Switzerland, published new regulations for the development of pao cai, a similar pickled vegetable dish from Sichuan, China. As BBC News reported, although the ISO list clearly states that “this document does not apply to kimchi,” Chinese state newspaper Global Times quickly jumped on the certification, claiming it as “an international standard. for the Chinese-led kimchi industry “. South Korea’s agriculture ministry dismissed the Chinese claims, issuing a statement saying: “It is inappropriate [the pao cai certification] without differentiating kimchi from Chinese Sichuan pao cai. “
Still, that response didn’t go far enough for many Koreans, who took to social and local media to champion their country’s quintessential comfort food and call on China to make it their own. “China is even trying to steal Kimchi from Korea”, tweeted an user. The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, called China’s claim “its latest attempt at world domination.” And over the past three weeks, this online “kimchi war” has reignited a decades-long feud between neighboring nations that encompasses everything from fishing rights in the Yellow Sea to recent comments from a member of the K- Group. Pop on China’s role in the Korean War. .
The battle over who owns the kimchi can come down to a simple misunderstanding that got lost in the translation
But it seems the battle over who owns the kimchi can come down to a simple misunderstanding that got lost in the translation.
According to Dr Sojin Lim, co-director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, Korean kimchi is often served in China as pao cai, and – to add further confusion – China has its own fermented dish which he also calls pao cai, which is the dish which has recently obtained ISO certification.
“Pao cai is quite different from kimchi. Kimchi is fermented cabbage, [made with] very different types of spices [and] not spicy [ingredients]. But this pao cai, which China claims to be 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’s the starting point for this argument. “
There should be no dispute about the origin of kimchi
For many South Koreans, the very idea that another nation might claim its national dish touches a nerve that goes beyond food.
“There should be no dispute over the origin of kimchi,” said Syuoung Park, executive chef at Korean restaurant Jungsik, two Michelin stars in New York City. “Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that originated over 3,000 years ago. The tradition of making kimchi began as a way to ferment and preserve vegetables during the cold winter when many Koreans were dying. of hunger.This is the most common side dish on a table every day [and] a long-standing cultural heritage of Korea. I hope our culture will no longer be distorted. “
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According to Fuchsia Dunlop, author of The Food of Sichuan and Chinese culinary expert, “Pao cai literally means ‘pickled vegetables in brine,’” and while kimchi is covered in ground chili peppers and fermented with seafood, none of these are only present in the Szechuan pao chi. Yet just as many Koreans eat kimchi every day – even when orbiting the Earth – Dunlop explains that pao cai holds an equally strong place in the hearts and stomachs of Szechuan people.
“It’s incredibly important. It’s an essential part of the traditional Szechuan diet,” she said. “Normally at every meal you will have a little pickles – maybe radish, cabbage, whatever the season. If you have breakfast in Sichuan, a typical thing to have is rice porridge. thin with a steamed loaf or bread item, then pickles. The function of pickles is xiafan, which means “send the rice down”. You eat these simple foods and you need something tasty to send the rice. It’s the same with an evening meal. It really is part of the daily life of the Szechuan people. “
Interestingly, just as some Italians believe that the “real” Neapolitan pizza is only made with San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic plains near Mount Vesuvius, Dunlop explained that Szechuan pao cai aficionados believe that sea brine used to prepare the condiment should ideally be prepared with salt from the Szechuan town of Zigong, where it has been mined for over 2000 years.
There are countless other wonderful pickled vegetables all over China that the outside world knows nothing about.
According to Clarissa Wei, a Taiwan-based reporter who traveled to Sichuan earlier this year to describe how local residents prepare pao cai, this cloudy marinade is what really sets the two regional condiments apart.
“The biggest difference is that Sichuan pickles (pao cai) use a brine of salt water and spices, while for kimchi, you massage the cabbage with salt and marinate it in its natural juice. whole are added to the brine of the pao cai and the vegetable is not completely broken up during the pickling process, ”Wei said.
So if the two dishes are markedly different, what to do with China’s claim to kimchi?
“China loves to jump into stories that say the Chinese were the first. But the truth is, it might be a little more complicated than that,” Dunlop said. “China, Korea, and Japan have amazing marinating traditions, like many other countries in the world. All over the world, people have been thinking of ways to make foods last longer. pickling and fermentation everywhere. Of course, there are local … specialties and variations, but it’s an integral part of shared human culture. It is absurd for anyone to claim to have invented pickling! “
Yet while Unesco, South Koreans and most diners around the world would be quick to label kimchi as Korean, Dunlop argues that China has likely won this latest fermenting feud. Per the New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters and other international media reporting on the recent line, countless readers who had never heard of pao cai are now aware of it – a fact that is evident by this graphic Google Trends showing searches for the Szechuan Dish at a five-year high.
“Regardless of what anyone thinks of that claim, the Chinese people have won a huge public relations victory,” Dunlop said. “Pao cai is a wonderful Sichuan tradition, but only in Sichuan. There are countless other wonderful pickled vegetables all over China that the outside world knows nothing about.
Maybe China can leave the kimchi to the Korean experts and take this moment to introduce the world to its many other mouthwatering ways to ‘bring down the rice’.
Food wars is a BBC Travel series that invites you to feel the warmth as passions embrace over beloved dishes that shape a culture’s identity.
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