Korea's miracle food

MIRACLE FOOD: South Koreans enjoy the spicy taste of Kimchi at a Seoul restaurant.
MIRACLE FOOD: South Koreans enjoy the spicy taste of Kimchi at a Seoul restaurant.

The most appropriate fate for Korea's national dish is burial at the bottom of the garden.

Farmers have for centuries sworn that this traditional method results in the highest-quality kimchi.

Bury it in an air-tight container when days start growing chilly - and dig it up after winter snows melt. It's that simple.

KOREA'S NATIONAL DISH: A clerk packs South Korean made Kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish, for a consumer at a department store in Seoul.
KOREA'S NATIONAL DISH: A clerk packs South Korean made Kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish, for a consumer at a department store in Seoul.

Tourists visiting Korea are increasingly enrolling in kimchi-making classes as word spreads of the food's supposedly miraculous attributes.

But these days millions of South Koreans, living in high-rise apartments, don't have gardens where they can bury ceramic pots of kimchi.

No problem. In this hi-tech Asian nation - where the likes of Samsung, LG and Hyundai spearhead successive innovations - special kimchi fridges are available. Many Koreans own these appliances - and those who don't often use regular refrigerators.

Kimchi refrigerators maintain perfect fermentation temperatures - slightly warmer than typical settings on regular fridges.

Historians say the first literary reference to kimchi came 3000 years ago. But in recent years, this possibly strange food has received global attention.

It originated as a poor farmers' foodstuff. Rural folk pickled and preserved vegetables to sustain them during harsh winters when fresh vegetables were scarce and expensive.

Over many centuries, kimchi has anchored the Korean diet.

"Kimchi is good for you and tastes great," insists Kim Young Hee who owns one of the country's many kimchi factories supplying modern Koreans who consider themselves too busy to prepare their own..

She also runs kimchi-making classes at her factory. Hotel tour desks in almost every Korean city can organise classes for guests, with English-speaking teachers.

Aside from its many kimchi factories and kimchi-making classes, Korea also has a Kimchi Museum in the capital, Seoul, where the foodstuff's history and role are depicted.

In a nation ablaze with flashing neon and addicted to hi-tech gadgetry, traditions of a bygone Korea remain surprisingly strong. Historic inns dot across the country. Folk dancing and other aspects of traditional culture remain popular.

While global fast-food chains do well in Korea, kimchi consumption hasn't fallen.

Remember the outbreak - globally, but particularly in Asia - a decade ago of a disease called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), for which no vaccine existed? Patients died by the thousand. Tourism was severely dented in many countries - as were other businesses.

But doctors in Hong Kong noticed one oddity: though local residents fell victim, members of Hong Kong's large Korean community seemed immune.

Nothing was clinically proven but it was widely suspected that kimchi-rich diets played preventative roles. After all, it was the only noteworthy dietary difference between Koreans and other residents of cosmopolitan Hong Kong.

Cable New Network (CNN) and other information sources took up the story. Suddenly kimchi was in the news. It was hailed as a "miracle food" and "super food".

Korean tourism officials quickly reported a surge in the number of visitors wanting to enrol in kimchi-making classes. And, over the years since SARS, interest hasn't waned.

Rich in calcium, iron, thiamine and riboflavin as well as vitamins A and C, kimchi is said to prevent many illnesses.

Many Koreans are convinced it works. But just what is kimchi, a food Koreans generally eat three times a day?

The best-known form is based on cabbage to which garlic, ginger, chopped radish, sliced chillies and Korean style red pepper powder are added before fermentation begins.

As alternatives to cabbage, kimchi can be made from beans, cucumbers, carrots, mung bean sprouts, radishes, spring onions - in fact, just about any vegetable. It also features as an ingredient in many Korean dishes - including fried rice and savoury pancakes.

In Korean restaurants at home, cabbage kimchi is often put on the table as a side-dish.

In small family eateries, where operators are often immensely proud of their kimchi recipes, other types of kimchi are brought out as accompaniments on request - though Korean diners are often given several types without having to ask.

Food authorities predict Korean cuisine will be the next big Asian food fad - increasing the numbers going to Korea on holiday, just as Thai and Vietnamese dishes boosted travel to those countries.

At one Korean restaurant I went to in Seoul, 20 side-dishes of different types of kimchi were placed on the table. Everywhere else I ate I encountered at least three.

Waiters in Korea are often amused when western tourists - innocently believing themselves to be victims of trickery - exclaim, when kimchi is delivered: "We didn't order that."

But the good news is that kimchi - no matter how many types are offered - is free.

What's more, it's extremely tasty. Generally, only "special" kimchi incurs a charge - for instance, a three year-old kimchi I sampled. My Korean companions savoured and discussed it as if it was the finest cognac.

Those believing kimchi has miraculous powers credit its blend of ingredients with giving it an almost magical ability to heal the body.

About the only downside to kimchi consumption is garlicky breath. But that, say kimchi aficionados, is a small price to pay for its healthful benefits.

While K-Pop - aided by rapper Psy and his quirky Gangnam Style dance - and Korean movies increase in worldwide popularity (particularly across Asia), chefs in Seoul remain confident that kimchi will be around long after celebrity-driven fashions are eclipsed.

They're keen for tourists to try kimchi - and include it in their diets after they head home. 


GETTING THERE: See koreanair.com, flyasiana.com and  airasia.com.

STAYING THERE: Many options exist in all categories, from budget-priced backpacker dormitories to opulent five-star hotels. Global chains are well represented.

In Seoul, two top-drawer links in local chains are Lotte and Shilla. A memorable and offbeat experience, available in several parts of Korea, is staying at one of the country's many Buddhist temples (some of which welcome tourists).

PLAYING THERE: Best day-trip: Panmunjom border tours are available from most hotels, enabling visitors to peer into secretive North Korea. Best short side-trip: number-two city Busan (ride the high-speed train) with popular white-sand Haeundae Beach.

Best longer side-trip: far-southern Jeju, a resort isle with beaches, hikes, golf, mountaineering, sightseeing and many resorts. Useful website: visitkorea.or.kr 

The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.