Fermented Food Fight Over Kimchi

I think food dishes taste better — and nourish more than our bodies — when they are steeped in long-standing traditions and cultural diversity. That’s one of the big reasons that kimchi makes my top ten list of all time favorite ferments.

Not only is it easy to make at home, but thinking of those traditional Korean methods of making kimchi collectively as a community and burying it in pots in the earth make it seem so beautiful, homey, and grounded. Also, the fact that so many Korean people treat it as a kind of spice, using it in just about every meal, resonates for me.

When I eat it, I feel so much more vital and clear headed. So, I put it on eggs, top my tacos or pizza with it, or slather it on a sandwich instead of mayo.

Today though, there’s lots of controversy brewing over the origin stories and cultural identity of this savory and spicy cabbage and gochu based ferment. In fact, I just read about a new issue in a Guardian article.

So, as a little food for thought, I want to share some information on two kimchi-related controversies and the broader concerns surrounding them.

Gochu Origin

While writing my book Grow Your Own Spices, I did extensive research on Gochu (the Anglicized name of the pepper cultivars used in Korean kimchi). In that process, I discovered that some Korean researchers believe this pepper, synonymous with “authentic” kimchi, may have evolved on the Korean peninsula long before early Portuguese traders first made contact.

If that ultimately proves true, it would negate the long held belief that all chilis spread from Latin American to Europe and Asia via the spice trade. On the flip side, others say this claim about the gochu origin story is just another way Korean Nationalism romanticizes the past to help preserve its ethnic and cultural identity in the present.

I personally find both Gochu origin stories fascinating. I love the idea of a plant co-evolving with human culture. Yet, I also love that the introduction of new plants into our every day lives can shape and influence our cultures in dramatic ways.

Melting Pot vs. Cultural Dilution

Honestly, most of my personal food culture comes from somewhere else. My daily cooking is French-influenced. However, I frequently delve into Middle Eastern, North African, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Nepalese, and many other cultures’ recipes to bring interest and excitement to our meals.

So, I’m clearly comfortable with cultural appropriation in my every day life. Frankly, that’s the American way. We are the melting pot of cultural diversity. That’s why down the road from me in Mount Airy, North Carolina ethnic based restaurants – Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Japanese, and others – dominate our local restaurant scene.

Yet, in many other parts of the world, preserving a unified cultural identity is more normal than merging like a melting pot.

A Detour to Champagne

Consider places like France where even the use of certain words are regulated to help preserve historical food and beverage traditions from being lost to the ubiquitousness that often accompanies the globalization of food products.

For example, sparkling wine can only be called champagne when it is grown and produced in the Champagne region. If all sparkling wine were allowed to be called champagne, then we might easily forget that Champagne is in fact the wine-making region typically credited with turning what was once considered a wine “fault” into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Now, let me be clear, the region can’t take credit for inventing sparkling wine. Nature did that. However, I believe it did elevate that bubbly beverage’s status by turning the natural predisposition of Champagne grown grapes to carbonate into something worth celebrating.

As such I am happy to help preserve that bit of cultural heritage by calling sparkling wine made outside the Champagne region something other than champagne. But what’s all this got to do with a fermented food fight and kimchi you ask…

Kimchi Origin

Well, today I came across this article in the Guardian called Stealing our culture’: South Koreans upset after China claims kimchi as its own. It’s a quick read, so I encourage you to check it out.

But, in case you don’t… the gist is that China received International recognition for making it’s own distinct version of something like kimchi. And it’s sparked a bit of a social media outrage.

To some, this international recognition amounts to equivalent of say Italy calling it’s prosecco by the name champagne — just to spite the French. Except, in this case, the subject of kimchi is a whole lot more touchy given current and historical relations between China and South Korea.

I don’t understand enough about the issues to have an informed opinion. What I do know though is that the Korean-style kimchi we make on our homestead is amazing! And I also know that using Korean gochu, rather than other varieties of drying peppers, is quite critical to getting the taste just right.

So, in my book, kimchi is synonymous with Korean culture. Speaking of books…

Shameless Book Plug!

If you do want to make Korean-style at home — no matter where you live– I highly suggest you grow your own gochu. And it just so happens that I explain how in my new book!

Of course, if you can’t wait for the book to arrive to learn more about gochu and kimchi, you can also read my related posts on Morning Chores for more details.

How to Grow Gochu (Korean Chili Peppers) for Gochujang

How to Make Homemade Kimchi from Your Fall Garden Produce

Thank you for reading and I’d really appreciate if you could share this post with any other kimchi lovers or pepper growers you may know!

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