Kimchi at the heart of a food war between China and South Korea

If you’re new to kimchi, it’s fermented, spicy cabbage that goes with almost every meal in South Korea. This culinary specialty is also listed in the Unesco’s intangible heritage. Considered a national treasure, kimchi has been the subject of heated debate between China and South Korea for several weeks.

It all started in November, when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an organization that sets global standards, has issued regulations for the preparation of pao cai, a dish made from fermented vegetables that originated in Sichuan, China. Although the ISO clarifies that the document concerns the certification of pao cai and not that of kimchi, Chinese media outlet Global Times claimed that this extends to the Chinese-led kimchi industry. The remark was quickly reacted by South Koreans and the Korean Minister of Agriculture, who considered it inappropriate not to differentiate kimchi from pao cai.

The Koreans denounced in the media the behavior considered unacceptable of China, which according to them would like to appropriate their gastronomy. For Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, this is another Chinese attempt to dominate the world.

Kimchi vs pao cai

According to Sojin Lim, co-director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, the current Kimchi war is the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. Indeed, Korean kimchi is often served in China as pao cai, which is also a fermented dish that originated in Sichuan. It would therefore have been confusing. Gold, “Pao cai, which China says is part of the kimchi family, is a pickled vegetable that has nothing to do with kimchi”, says the specialist. According to her, the taste and preparation of the two condiments are not alike.

For South Koreans, the very fact that there is a debate around the national membership of kimchi is an outrage. According to Syuoung Park, chef for Korean restaurant Jungsik, two Michelin stars and located in New York, “Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that originated over 3,000 years ago. The tradition of making kimchi began as a way of fermenting and preserving vegetables during a freezing winter when Koreans were starving to death. “ It is therefore a real cultural heritage. Fuchsia Dunlop, a culinary expert specializing in Chinese gastronomy, explains, however, that pao cai holds as important a place in the hearts of Sichuan people as kimchi in that of Koreans.

Despite the recent gastronomic war between China and South Korea, this dish remains widely recognized as being of Korean origin. But according to Fuchsia Dunlop, China has won the battle by successfully spreading the word about its Szechuan specialty, pao cai.

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