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Kimchi crisis leaves South Koreans hot under collar

Government officials scramble to respond to a cabbage shortage, reducing import tariffs and subsidizing consumers.

October 05, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — Freakish fall weather has resulted in a national kimchi crisis, causing South Korean consumers to clutch at their purses, hearts and stomachs as they seek to deal with a shortage of the oblong-shaped cabbage used to make the ubiquitous spicy dish.

With heavy September rains ruining much of the Napa, or Chinese, cabbage crop, prices have jumped fourfold to more than $10 a head.

In response, the federal government last week announced a temporary reduction in tariffs on Chinese-imported cabbage and radishes in a plan to rush an additional 100 tons of the staples into stores this month.

And on Monday, the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, in which it is absorbing 30% of the cost of about 300,000 heads of cabbage it has purchased from rural farmers so it can be sold for less to consumers.

Depriving Koreans of their kimchi, many say, is like forcing Italians to forgo pasta or taking all the tea from China. The dish of fermented cabbage, radish and chile paste has such iconic status here that there is a museum dedicated to kimchi in Seoul, and portions of it were blasted into space with the country's first astronaut in 2008.

Served with virtually every meal, kimchi is believed by many to ward off aging, reduce cholesterol and fight disease. South Koreans together eat more than 2 million tons of it each year.

The shortage has raised tempers and led to intemperate political statements. When President Lee Myung-bak announced he would eat only kimchi made from what he said was cheaper round cabbage common in Europe and North America, many people erupted in anger.

The round cabbage, Internet users pointed out, was only slightly cheaper here than the Chinese variety, suggesting the president's claim was out of touch with the needs and concerns of the working class.

"For the president to say something like that is like Marie Antoinette saying, 'Let them eat cake!'" one blogger groused.

The shortages have come at the onset of gimjang season, when families lovingly hand-prepare the kimchi they will consume during the winter and spring. Many prefer kimchi that has fermented for months or even years in earthenware pots.

In a play on words, people now refer to kimchi as gold. (The two words are similar in Korean.) In restaurants, where customers wrap beef and pork in a slice of cabbage, they joke that the custom should be reversed, because the cabbage is now more costly than many meats.

Many stores have posted "out of stock" signs in the Chinese cabbage bins. Many of the cabbages that are still available are anemic. Kimchi home delivery companies have suspended services.

The jump in prices is part of an unsettling consumer trend, analysts say. Rising farm expenses have brought the largest one-year jump in fresh produce costs in two decades. The prices of lettuce, pumpkins and radishes have all risen more than 200% since this time last year, according to statistics from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance.

In addition, emergency imports from China have sparked fear among some consumers, who point to a crisis in 2005 in which imported Chinese-made kimchi products were contaminated by parasite eggs.

In recent days, a black-market cabbage trade has sprouted. Police say many residents are hoarding the vegetables for resale. Four men were recently caught stealing more than 400 heads of Chinese cabbage.

Restaurants that traditionally provide kimchi for free are now charging for refills. Company and school cafeterias are serving kimchi made with less-preferred radishes.

Many Seoul consumers are driving into the countryside on weekends in an attempt to buy directly from farmers.

"I've had more than 20 customers from Seoul over the weekend," said Ban Sang-hyuk, a 58-year-old cabbage farmer just outside the capital.

Growers like Ban say that regardless of whether they have a good harvest, they sell their cabbage for no more than $3 a head.

Such prices are music to the ears of kimchi consumers like Jin Hye-ryun. The 51-year-old Seoul homemaker doesn't like the thought of substituting lesser ingredients for South Korea's national dish. But she'll do what she has to do.

"We can't stand life without kimchi even for one day," she said.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ethan Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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