Move along, kombucha. You’re old news, kefir. The next big fermented food craze is . . . kimchi?
If Western consumers on a health kick can be convinced to drink yeasty, probiotic tea and tart, cultured yogurt, then why wouldn’t they be up for spicy pickled cabbage fermented with garlic for months on end?
Well, that’s the goal of South Korean scientists at the World Institute of Kimchi on Kimchi Street in Kimchi Town, on the outskirts of the southern city of Gwangju.
“We are trying to globalize kimchi,” said Ha Jae-ho, head of the institute, describing it as a “functional food.” Think of it not just as soft power, but soft and somewhat slimy power.
It’s already growing in popularity throughout the world, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of kimchi to Koreans.
Kimchi is a side dish to every Korean meal. The standard varieties are made from napa cabbage or large Korean radish, but there are lots of other types, including kimchi made from cucumber, onions and leafy greens.
The vegetable is salted and then usually rubbed with chili powder, garlic, ginger and scallions. Then it’s left to ferment — the longer the better. There are lots of regional variations, from the mild kimchi of Pyongyang to the super spicy varieties in the south and the fishy kimchi of coastal areas.
The average South Korean eats 57 pounds of kimchi a year, according to the institute. They eat it in kimchi stew, in kimchi fried rice, grilled with meat, layered with tofu, and by itself. Koreans take kimchi when they go on vacation, and the institute made space kimchi for South Korea’s first astronaut.
“Kimchi is something that makes people turn up their noses, but it is becoming more and more popular in the U.S. right now” — and not just at farmers markets but at regular grocery stores, too, said Johanna Mendelson Forman, a professor at American University who specializes in gastrodiplomacy.
Trader Joe’s sells 14-ounce jars of kimchi. Whole Foods carries 163 kimchi products, and some stores offer kimchi on the salad or olive bars, a spokeswoman said.
Forman remembers seeing a recipe for kimchi in a Giant grocery store flier. Millennials, in particular, are interested in experimenting with healthful foods and making food as a “craft,” she said.
So how can South Korea build on that?
In Kimchi Town, the World Kimchi Institute — not to be confused with the Kimchi Research Institute at Pusan University — sits beside the Gwangju Kimchi Museum, which is totally separate from the Museum Kimchikan in Seoul.
The institute holds an international kimchiology symposium and prints a book of frequently asked kimchi questions. (Last year’s volume ran to 186 pages.) A poster announces an upcoming 20-week “kimchi sommelier” course.
The world kimchi festival is held here every November. It’s around that time of year, when the weather gets cooler, that Koreans make kimchi, a ritual called “kimjang.” Naturally, they’ve had the process recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In the $10 million museum, visitors learn that kimchi invigorates the body, that its lactic acid bacteria can “promote good digestion and detoxify the digestive system” and that kimchi “destroys harmful germs.”
Koreans say that kimchi wards off a range of ills, and it even sparked a children’s cartoon. “I can whip any disease, illness, cold, flu or virus on the planet,” the Kimchi Warrior declared during the swine flu outbreak a few years back, shooting a torrent of kimchi at a pig from a jar strapped to his back.
South Korea has had some notable success with cultural exports. Korean dramas and pop music — K-Pop — are huge across Asia, as is Korean plastic surgery.
Korean food has become cool in the West in recent years, with bulgogi meat appearing in fusion tacos and hipster bars making cocktails with soju, Korea’s answer to vodka.
But kimchi? Well, kimchi is a hard sell.
Even among kimchi-loving Koreans, many have separate kimchi fridges to stop the dish from tainting other food. If they keep it in their regular fridge, it goes into a vault-like box.
For this reason, scientists are trying to increase the good bacteria — especially the lactic acid that gives kimchi its probiotic qualities — and decrease the bad parts, namely the smell so pungent it can take days to work its way out a person’s pores.
“Most Western people don’t like the smell of kimchi because we use of lot of garlic and ginger, and that produces a lot of sulfur compounds,” said Ha.
As it tries to “spread kimchi culture worldwide,” the institute is highlighting kimchi’s high fiber content and ability to counteract bad bacteria, without mentioning its sodium content or Koreans’ high incidence of stomach cancer — something that some people consider to be linked to kimchi consumption.
In labs at the institute, scientists are working on the distinctive fumes, at least. “We’re trying to engineer the smell out of kimchi,” said Lee Mi-ae, a white-coated researcher. “But it’s difficult because the smell is linked to the flavor of the kimchi.”
Proponents of Korean food, including kimchi, see a good opportunity for promotion during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in February.
“Of course, there are well-known Korean dishes like barbecued meat and noodles,” said Yoon Sook-ja, head of the Institute for Traditional Korean Food, part of the agriculture ministry.
“But we’re also looking for simple ways to sell and promote other Korean food. We’ll have bulgogi meat in a bun like a hamburger, and bibimbap” — a stirred rice and vegetable dish — “in a cup,” she said.
South Korea launched a $77 million gastrodiplomacy initiative in 2009, promoted by the wife of the president of the time. The idea was to promote Korean cuisine to the world, but it petered out when the president, Lee Myung-bak, left office.
Hwang Kyo-ik, a culinary writer in Seoul, called the government’s efforts “embarrassing.”
“It usually takes about 30 years for foreign food to cross the cultural barriers, as it takes time for food to become a part of life,” Hwang said. “The South Korean government is trying to do this within a few years as if it’s a construction project.”
Forman, at American University, thinks there is a broader market for Korean food — even for kimchi.
“There’s an overwhelming correlation between knowing a country and having positive opinions about it,” she said. “When Nixon went to China, people started going to Chinese restaurants for dinner. And the ‘Global Thai’ campaign led to an explosion of Thai restaurants in the world.”
To help consumers around the world develop a taste for the Korean superfood, Ha, the institute director, recommends mild, white kimchi made with cabbage but without chili powder. He calls it “starter kimchi.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.