Is it South Korean or Chinese? Social media in a pickle over origin of kimchi

The fiery fermented cabbage dish has been at the heart of a spicy debate

03 December 2020 - 09:42 By hilary biller
Kimchi is a staple of Korean cuisine.
Kimchi is a staple of Korean cuisine.
Image: 123RF/Parinda Yatha

Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish that we in SA would understand as a relish, is an essential part of Korean cuisine. So it’s no surprise that it was in Seoul, South Korea, on a food tour with award-winning local chef Luke Dale Roberts, where I first tasted it.

My approach was tentative, the smell indicated it would be overpoweringly pungent, and the redness of the dish was an indication there was a fireball of chilli facing my taste buds. It was all that and more, and I’ve come to crave it back home.

Kimchi has been at the heart of a spicy debate that erupted on Asian social media recently.

According to Reuters, it all started when Beijing won a certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for pao cai, pickles that could be considered China’s answer to kimchi.

The trouble came in when the Chinese state-run Global Times reported this certification as being “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.

South Korean media quickly disputed this claim, which sparked anger among the country’s social media users.

“I read a media story that China now says kimchi is theirs, and that they are making international standard for it, it's absurd. I'm worried that they might steal hanbok [a traditional outfit] and other cultural contents, not just kimchi,” said Kim Seol-ha, a 28-year-old in Seoul.

Meanwhile on China's Twitter-like Weibo, Chinese netizens relished the chance to claim kimchi as their own, especially as most of the kimchi consumed in South Korea is made in China.

“Well, if you don’t meet the standard, then you’re not kimchi,” wrote one user.  

South Korea's agriculture ministry released a statement on Sunday saying that the ISO approved standard doesn't apply to kimchi.

“It is inappropriate to report [about pao cai winning the ISO] without differentiating kimchi from pao cai of China's Sichuan,” the statement said.

So what exactly is the difference between the two?

For Emma Chen of Joburg’s renowned Chinese restaurant, Red Chamber, it mostly comes down to semantics.

Chen explains that kimchi is a Korean word meaning “submerged food”, which refers to the process of submerging something in brine to pickle it. “There are a huge number of different kimchis.

“The Chinese have been preserving food in brine for more than 1,500 years. We call these pickles ‘pao cai’ which literally means ‘immersed food’,” she elaborates.

“Again, there are huge number of different pao cais. Each region does something different. The famous Sichuan pao cai, for example, contains Sichuan pepper, chilli and garlic.”

Most nations make some kind of pickles in one way or another, she concludes. “When I make kimchi I call it ‘Korean pao cai’. When I make sauerkraut, I call it ‘German pao cai’. That’s how I see it.”

This article is adapted from a Reuters report. Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim, Daewoung Kim and Soohyun Mah.