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How The Olympics Changed The Game For Kimchi (And Korea)

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Now that the closing ceremonies at Sochi have wrapped, ardent Winter Olympics fans have started to shift their attention to Pyeongchang, the South Korean ski resort that will host the next games in 2018. That means anxiety for the country’s Olympic officials.

“Apart from a minor technical glitch the opening ceremony suffered, the [2014] games were pretty seamless,” wrote a commentator for the International Business-Times. “Pressure will now be on South Korea to try and out-perform Sochi.”

But Pyeongchang has one major advantage over Sochi: South Korea's last Olympics were more recent, and closer to the new location, than Russia's, meaning that a lot of the groundwork is already done. Stadiums have been built, infrastructure has been fine-tuned to accommodate large crowds -- and last but not least, the kimchi issue has been solved.

Indeed, at this point, the idea of a "kimchi issue" sounds baffling, if not ridiculous. Everybody loves kimchi now! But in 1988, when South Korea last hosted the games, officials were genuinely conflicted about the role that kimchi would play in the Olympics.

Kimchi, which refers to any one of hundreds of varieties of fermented vegetables, was (and is) indisputably the national food of South Korea. Koreans eat kimchi with almost every meal, starting with breakfast. The average South Korean eats about 77 pounds of it every year -- mostly baechu kimchi, the Napa-cabbage-and-chili-pepper variety found in most American restaurants. Kimchi has been a crucial part of Korean identity since at least the second century, when Chinese visitors to the peninsula remarked on the local residents' love of fermented and pickled vegetables.

But Koreans long believed that foreigners, especially Westerners, had trouble with kimchi -- that they found its earthy, funky smell offensive and its high chili content unpalatable. So in the lead-up to the 1988 games, Olympic officials were worried that foreign journalists and athletes would be put off by the smell of kimchi in the city streets.

The officials ended up forging a compromise. They made sure that kimchi was one of the official foods of the 1988 Olympics. But according to the Los Angeles Times, they also demanded that anyone working with foreign visitors during the Olympics brush their teeth thoroughly after every meal.

This triangulation on the kimchi issue was wildly successful. Though a few journalists reported catching whiffs of kimchi on the subways, no one was shocked by the odor. And in the wake of the 1988 games, kimchi sales started skyrocketing across the world.

Since that introduction, the South Korean government has invested a great deal of time and money promoting kimchi sales abroad. Nutritionists have touted kimchi as a low-fat, high-nutrient source of probiotics, like yogurt and kombucha, increasing sales among the health-conscious. More recently, kimchi has gained prestige through its association with the food of acclaimed Korean-American chefs such as David Chang, Roy Choi and Hooni Kim.

As a result, kimchi is more popular than ever in the United States. It's a regular feature on the menus of all sorts of restaurants, including major chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Roy's and even TGI Friday's. (According to the restaurant industry analysis firm FoodGenius, kimchi is included on about 1 in 50 menus at all restaurants across the country, and it's offered at a significantly higher rate in coastal states like New York and California.) And gourmet-oriented supermarkets like Whole Foods often dedicate an entire shelf to different varieties of kimchi. One of the brands that's been most successful is New York-based Mother-in-Law's Kimchi, which was started by wine business veteran Lauryn Chun in 2009.

"It was about the time when Momofuku and David Chang were starting to get a lot of press," Chun told The Huffington Post. "Americans were looking for some kind of Asian food beyond the usual suspects -- Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Indian. So Korean food was becoming very popular. And I really thought that people would want kimchi that tasted better than the bland stuff that was in most supermarkets at the time."

Mother-in-Law's Kimchi is made by hand, in a style much closer to the traditional methods than the automatization of larger brands. At about $10 per 16-ounce jar, it is more expensive than mass-produced kimchi. But it's also far more flavorful. It's now sold in 30 states around the U.S., and Chun has plans to keep expanding.

But while kimchi is flourishing abroad, there are signs of trouble in its native country.

A growing number of Koreans are becoming disconnected from the production of kimchi. For centuries, most Koreans usually ate kimchi that they either made themselves or that was given to them by their relatives. Traditionally, families would make the bulk of their yearly supply of kimchi during one frantic period of autumn known as kimjang. The kitchen-savvy women of the family -- and all the families near them -- would harvest the best Napa cabbage of the year and prepare it into kimchi en masse. They would put all the ingredients in large earthen jars, which they would bury in their yards to ferment in a spot with cool, even temperatures. Then they would leave the jars underground for most of the winter, only opening them up when they wanted to eat the stuff inside.

In December, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the ritual of kimjang as an official part of the world's "Intangible Cultural Heritage," at the urging of the South Korean government. But in megacities like Seoul and Busan, most people don't have space for a proper kimjang. Some urban residents visit their relatives in the country every year for their supply of kimchi, which they store in specially designed "kimchi refrigerators" that mimic the temperature-stable conditions of the Korean earth. More and more Koreans bypass the kimjang altogether and buy their kimchi at the supermarket instead.

"The ritual that was so closely identified with fall in Korea for so long -- nobody's doing it anymore," Chun said. "That's a little bit sad. It's inherently part of the culture, and we're losing it."

Plus, an increasingly large share of the kimchi sold in supermarkets isn't even made in Korea. The past two years have been the first in recorded history in which South Korea imported more kimchi than it exported -- $28 million more, to be exact.

"Koreans are having a real crisis in food sovereignty," said Michigan State Korean studies scholar Young Rae Oum. "Koreans produce less than half of all food they consume. It is said that about 90 percent of kimchi served in the restaurants is imported from China."

So was the bid to internationalize kimchi that started in 1988 almost too successful? Has it diluted the "Koreanness" of kimchi?

Maybe -- but it also might be a mistake to assume that kimchi was ever "completely Korean," whatever that would even mean. Michael Pettid, a SUNY-Binghamton professor of Korean history who wrote the definitive English-language history of Korean food, said that the crucial ingredients in the most ubiquitous kind of kimchi are relative newcomers on the Korean Peninsula.

"All the dishes that we associate with Korean food today have really been influenced by outside forces," Pettid said. "We associate barbecue, for example, with Korean food -- but that was brought there during the Mongolian invasions of the 14th century. And kimchi as we know it today is a similar story."

He explained that Napa cabbage wasn't cultivated in Korea until the 19th century, when it was brought there by Chinese traders. Even more shockingly, the chili peppers that give many kimchis their signature fiery kick weren't introduced to Korea until the end of the 16th century. They were brought to the peninsula by Japanese invaders, who got them from Portuguese traders, who in turn got them from the native people of Brazil.

In that sense, then, the current and future internationalization of kimchi may just be a return to the food's roots outside the Korean borders. For now, that's something of a discouraging prospect, in part because so much kimchi made and served outside Korea is of mediocre quality. But Hooni Kim, the chef of New York's acclaimed modern Korean restaurants Danji and Hanjan, is confident that will change as non-Korean palates become more sophisticated.

"I compare it to sushi," he said. "Just 30 years ago, sushi was cheap. It was about these glow-in-the-dark-colored tunas wrapped in overcooked rice and stale seaweed. Everybody thought that was perfectly fine. Including me! But now people have much higher expectations."

"For non-Koreans, Korean food, including kimchi, is still new," he continued. "It's inevitable that with more time, people will prefer something a little better. It just takes time."

But a major stage at the Olympics doesn't hurt. So if Seoul was where kimchi was introduced to the world, maybe Pyeongchang can be where the world learns that kimchi can be amazing.

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