If the country of South Korea has a national dish it is kimchi. While the fermented veggie dish has an unforgettable taste it also has an undeniable odor, especially to western noses. Now Korean scientists are looking for ways to make kimchi smell less pungent and purists are furious.
Indeed, Huffington Post is so riled at the effort that it has made kimchi into a new category of social justice activism by insisting that evil westerners are “smell-shaming” immigrants for their various types of exotic food.
For HuffPo, Carla Herreria histrionically insists, “It’s another reminder that traditional Asian foods are viewed as a source of shame that immigrants must hide or adapt to be accepted.”
She goes on to bemoan how immigrants are forced to eat their beloved native dishes in secret for fear of being made fun of. And at one point she even wrings hands over the “cultural appropriation” that occurs when westerners warm up to those very foreign foods.
Herreria quotes writer Ruth Tam who complained, “This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as ‘authentic’ on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here.”
So, on one hand Herreia is upset that immigrants have to hide their exotic foods. On the other, she is upset that Americans are perpetrating “cultural appropriation” when those same foods become trendy. Once again, we find that social justice warriors are never happy.
So, what is all this fuss over kimchi?
Kimchi is sort of South Korea’s chili. Every family has its own recipe giving the dish wildly different tastes across the land. Some families make this famed cabbage dish as hot and spicy as the hottest American chili. Others opt for more garlic and vinegar.
But because it is fermented in all sorts of acidic juices, it has a smell that could knock you over if you aren’t careful. So, scientists at the World Institute of Kimchi have announced plans to begin looking for ways to lighten the olfactory waft of the dish so that it might appeal to westerners, the Washington Post reported.
“We are trying to globalize kimchi,” Ha Jae-ho, head of the institute, told the Post. Calling it a “functional food,” Jae-ho is looking to bring the delights of kimchi to the world.
The dish is usually made of napa cabbage, but there are other versions made of cucumber, onions, and other leafy greens.
As the Post describes it:
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.
But, the smell. Oh, that smell.
A personal story might help describe that smell.
This reporter is married to a Korean and we always have kimchi in the house. One year, when we were moving, I asked a friend to help me load the moving van. He peeked into our fridge — looking for beer, no doubt — and saw our jar of kimchi.
“What is that?” he asked tentatively.
I told him it was kimchi and then quickly opened the lid and shoved the jar under his nose. His face twisted into all sorts of disgust, and after letting out a whoop he ran headlong out the front door. That would be a very typical reaction to kimchi for many Americans and this story might explain how pungent kimchi is to the untrained nose.
Enter the institute to do something about that smell to make the dish more interesting to western customers.
“We’re trying to engineer the smell out of kimchi” researcher Lee Mi-ae said of their work. “But it’s difficult because the smell is linked to the flavor of the kimchi.”
Indeed, Koreans are quite proud of their tangy dish. As HuffPo notes, it is deeply embedded in Korean culture.
“Kimchi isn’t just a food staple in Korea, it’s a part of a cultural identity,” HuffPo wrote. “In fact, it’s so deeply embedded in Korean culture that the tradition of making and sharing the dish, known as ‘kimjang,’ is recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
But not everyone in South Korea is as enthusiastic about the program.
Hwang Kyo-ik, a culinary writer in Seoul, says the effort to take the smell out of kimchi is “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.”
One thing is sure, the pride each Korean family has in their own personal recipe won’t be altered by any government program aimed at enticing foreigners.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org