Kimchi, a popular East Asian pickle dish is an intangible part of Korean identity. Recently, this dish became the centre of a heated debate between social media users of China and South Korea, the latter accusing China of “stealing their culture”.

The feud emerged after the new regulations of the International Organisation for Standardisation for a dish called pao cai that is popular in southwestern province of China. Both pao cai and kimchi are salted, fermented vegetables used as pickles in most homes, cabbage kimchi being the most famous in Korea. While pao caiwas brought under the new rules of trade, transport and storage, there was no mention of kimchi. However, Chinese media clubbed the two together and ran news of the certification as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China ”. This move was condemned as Chinese cultural assertiveness on Korea’s ‘soul food’ kimchi,  as popularly known among South Koreans.

The national dish of both Koreas, kimchi is one of the points of convergence between the North and South, which otherwise are two diametrically opposite states. It is an important cultural tool for South Korea exported worldwide through K-pop and K-dramas. Kimjang, the traditional process of preparing kimchi, is listed under Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2013, and November is popularly known as the kimjang season. The fact that kimchi was on board when South Korea sent its first astronaut to the International Space Station in 2008 makes it an indispensable part of Koran cultural heritage. 

To celebrate its contributions in Korean culinary industry, the World Institute of Kimchi and Korean Kimchi Association was established by the government. There is even a museum in Seoul based on the pickle called Kimchikan that brings the new generation close to the historical value of kimchi and the various traditions revolving around it.

The tradition of kimjang has been in decline in recent times with most of the homes especially in urban settings now consuming restaurant made kimchi rather than preparing it at home. According to the World Institute of Kimchi, 4 out of every 10 South Korean households have never made kimchi or know how to. Ironically, China is the world’s leading producer of kimchi. The demand in the South Korean market is so high that China-made kimchi has been imported to satisfy domestic consumption. Around 2 million tons is consumed every year, and nearly 90 per cent of the kimchi served in restaurants comes from China.

After Chinese media claims and uproar on social media, the South Korean Agriculture Ministry reiterated how kimchi is a central part of the nation’s food culture and that the industrial standards for it were recognized by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as long ago as 2001. This came after a dispute with another pickle-loving neighbour, Japan.

The claims by China are seen as the “latest bid for world domination” by netizens. How historical complexities are shaping the present-day scenarios of East Asia can be summed up in one tweet of a South Korean stating “I am sure I hate China more than I hate Japan now!”.

By Apoorva Jain

APOORVA JAIN is pursuing her Master's in Politics (with specialization in international studies), from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She is currently a research intern at the Eastern Interest.

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