Kimchi Sales Rise on Link to Possible Bird Flu Cure

Local Korean grocers report strong sales of kimchi, a spicy cabbage dish.
Local Korean grocers report strong sales of kimchi, a spicy cabbage dish. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

Moon K. Yoon sensed something was up about two months ago when the 16-ounce jars of kimchi started moving quickly from the shelves of the Lotte Plaza International Supermarket in Fairfax, a sign that interest in the spicy cabbage dish had moved beyond the Korean customers who typically buy it by the gallon.

At the Super H Mart on Lee Highway in Fairfax City, sales of $7.99 bags of freshly made kimchi have increased 55 percent, compared with a year ago, store records showed.

Ho Jin Lee, president of Kim Chee Pride Inc. of Maspeth, N.Y., which supplies kimchi on the East Coast, said sales jumped 20 percent this year.

A sudden new joie d'epice in the American diet?

Try avian flu.

Blame it on the Internet, the anxiety of life in the 21st century, or a volatile combination of the two, but publication of a minor study by a South Korean academic last spring has apparently triggered a minor run on kimchi, a daily staple of the Korean diet that the bland-of-palate are likely to avoid like a global pandemic.

Which presents a potentially difficult choice given the work of Kang Sa-Ouk of Seoul National University, who took 13 chickens infected with avian flu virus and a couple of other diseases, fed them kimchi juice and found that 11 of the birds recovered.

Word of the study has been circulating on the Internet. As fears about bird flu have grown in the recent months, Yoon and operators of other ethnic groceries have gotten more phone calls about kimchi.

So has the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where callers have turned seeking validation of the idea that kimchi may ward off avian flu, spokeswoman Kathy Stover said.

"Although it certainly sounds interesting, NIAID, unfortunately, can't comment on the dish's effectiveness as we have not studied it," Stover said in an e-mail.

Yoon and his fellow grocers have also gotten lots of questions about the dish's taste and its pungent smell. "It's hard for me to explain the taste," Yoon said.

The most common preparation of kimchi for sale in markets begins with sliced Napa cabbage, which is salted, set aside for hours and then rinsed. Most traditional recipes add plenty of crushed garlic, as well as ginger, onion, sliced radish and fish sauce to the cabbage. And lots of hot pepper, though Yoon said that in some "Americanized" versions, the pepper and fish sauce are reduced.

No one quite knows what in kimchi is the magic ingredient, but its increased popularity pleases international food groceries, who believe the exposure might bring more customers to their markets.

There might be other reasons for an increase in kimchi sales.

More exposure to ethnic cuisine might make American eaters more adventurous and eager to try the dish. As interest in cooking and international foods becomes more in vogue, so have the markets catering to customers seeking these dishes.

Regardless of the reason, the trend has been widely noticed among Korean grocers. Mainline stores in the region like Giant Food say they do not carry the dish.

"We're selling more small jars," said Kei Kim, the manager of the Grand Mart in Seven Corners near Falls Church. "They are scared -- they try a little."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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