K-MOVIE How kimchi, a Korean staple, became a global phenomenon

How kimchi, a Korean staple, became a global phenomenon


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The following story has been produced by our colleagues at the BBC.

South Korea and other parts of the world recognize Nov. 22 as Kimchi Day. These tangy and often spicy fermented vegetables have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNSECO, as an item of intangible cultural heritage.

Traditionally, local communities got together to make kimchi in bulk in November, ahead of winter. Kimchi has long ago gone beyond the country’s borders and onto the tables and into the kitchens of people around the world.

“Our kimchi recipe came from this really warm-hearted Korean mother. We try to keep that authenticity based on the recipe that my mother had,” said Zoe Yoon, sales manager at Mr. Kimchi. She started the business with her husband using her mother’s recipe in 2013. But their history goes a little further back.

“Back in 1997, I remember people coming into the house bringing their own containers and she used to put her kimchi into the containers,” she said.

Yoon’s mother was one of many Korean expats who brought their kimchi recipe overseas. From there, kimchi went beyond Korean communities. And now it’s not just Koreans who are making kimchi from scratch.

Traditional kimchi prepared in Donghae, South Korea. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

“So I lived in Japan for a while, and had been living in different parts of Asia, so when I came back to the U.K. prior to COVID, I couldn’t get hold of any kimchi and it was really frustrating,” said Tina Benson, the owner of Kimchi With Everything based in London. “So it kind of really started from that and then it progressed into a business. I’ve kind of kept the recipe very, you know, much like the Korean way.”

In Aberdeen, Scotland, Arthur Serini is director and co-founder of Crafty Pickle Co., which took a slightly untraditional approach.

“We started with just making a kimchi-style sauerkraut, so all the ingredients that you normally find in a kimchi just made into a sauerkraut instead. So think of like a kimchi slaw a little bit,” he said. “I felt like it was maybe a bit more widely accepted by Western palate — especially up in Aberdeen, Scotland, where anything fermented was quite foreign.”

Some people would point out — and have pointed out — that that’s not kimchi though. “That’s where we direct them to the name: kimchi sauerkraut,” Serini said. “Some people would call it cultural appropriation, but yeah, it’s just something we enjoy eating.”

But how do some Koreans feel about this nontraditional kimchi?

“There’s this horrible misconception that authentic food is the only food — well, actually, as long as it’s good, it doesn’t really matter to an extent. As long as it isn’t marked as as ‘authentic,’ I’m fine with it,” said Dan Suh, managing director at Korea Foods, the largest importer of Korean food in Europe.

“I think people always associate kimchi with Korea,” he went on. “We do make pasta dishes in the U.K. That doesn’t make it British. [It’s] still associated with Italy or pasta is associated with Italy.”

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