In an age of SARS, Koreans tout kimchi cure

Times Staff Writer

It is just a variation on fermented cabbage, garlic and chile peppers, but Asians are scooping up record amounts of kimchi, hoping Korea’s national dish is really a wonder drug.

Southeast Asians are stocking up on it. China has embraced it. And South Koreans, who already eat it with every meal, are buying even more than usual amid hope that word of its curative powers will boost national fame, culture and fortune overseas.

“I can’t imagine a meal without kimchi,” said Lee Eun Ja, a housewife, 43, pushing her shopping cart through the aisles of the New Core Supermarket in Ilsan. “I’m making my children eat a lot more of it these days. I certainly believe it fights SARS.”

It is the threat of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, that has ignited the current interest in kimchi as something more than an acquired taste.

Like kimchi itself, the science is, well, a bit tangy. Hong Jong Hoon, a technical consultant with the Korea Agriculture Development Institute, has played a key role in the kimchi surge by saying what many here quietly believe: The national dish is behind South Korea’s almost complete lack of SARS.

The theory was reported by the august Financial Times -- whose distinctive salmon tone, some have pointed out, resembles the color of kimchi in the right light. The report boosted shares of kimchi producers and sent export orders flying out of their fermentation vats.

Hong is quick to admit he’s not a doctor. But he says he is a scientist knowledgeable about plant diseases and the ways of living organisms. His SARS research was done over the Internet, he says.

Hong says he started at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site, which cites a suspected causal link between SARS and the coronavirus. He then made his way to Stanford University’s site, which lists -- along with reducing stress, getting more sleep and frequently washing your hands -- putting drops of garlic juice on the nostrils as a way to fight infection.

Put it all together, he says, and you see why South Korea has had only a handful of suspected cases of SARS and no fatalities, despite its close proximity to China, where the virus originated, and to hard-hit Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hong concedes that many other countries make ample use of garlic in their diets, including Italy and China. But they cook their garlic; Koreans eat theirs raw in kimchi. His theory may be tough to prove, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, he says.

“Medical doctors are in a way artisans. They cut and stitch. They move bones,” he said. “But their philosophy comes from chemistry and biology. I studied science and chemistry. I can make some important connections here and there through the Internet.”

Health professionals counter, however, that the kimchi theory breeds complacency, spreads potentially false information and otherwise undercuts their efforts to stem the disease.

“It’s a major concern with all medicine touted without being proven,” said Dr. David Heymann, Geneva-based director general of the World Health Organization’s communicable disease cluster. “There have been many different products and lots of proposals from different countries involving folk remedies. If they feel it’s important, it needs to be studied.”

Park Yong Woo, a doctor of family medicine at Seoul’s Samsung Hospital, agreed that testing was needed before people leap to any conclusion. But personally, he said, he’s convinced of its healing properties.

“I’d like to compare it with an orchestra,” said Park. “It’s made of cabbage. But within that are a lot of healthy constituents, including garlic, ginger and chile peppers. It’s very harmonious food.”

Kim Man Jo, a food industry consultant and author of several books, including “Kimchi, 1,000 Years,” “Kimchi, Hi!” and the soon-to-be released “Kimchi Odyssey,” has yet another theory.

This legend in the kimchi world -- she holds two kimchi-related doctoral degrees and the unofficial title of “godmother of kimchi studies” -- believes the secret is in the fermentation process. In particular, she said, kimchi’s helpful bacteria break down and destroy harmful, unwanted microbes.

“It can cope with SARS,” said the food scientist, who is sometimes asked overseas if she’s so devoted to kimchi because her name is Kim. “They haven’t done experiments yet, but harmful diseases can be dominated by the lactobacilli.”

Kimchi is certainly no stranger to hyperbole or myth. Nor is this likely to be the last claim of near-magical curative powers; its boosters claim it can prevent AIDS. Partisans say Confucius ate it, Homer wrote about it in “The Odyssey” and Cleopatra derived her beauty from it.

What historians generally agree on is that the Chinese first developed an early form of the pickled vegetable dish around 50 BC that was quickly adopted by Koreans as a way of preserving nutritious vegetables through long, bleak winters.

Chile peppers arrived much later in Korea from Japan -- by some reports on the heels of a Japanese invasion; by others, aboard Portuguese ships based in Nagasaki -- around the end of the 16th century, although the first written mention of chiles’ widespread use in kimchi and everyday rural life doesn’t appear until the 18th century.

“Chile peppers may be hot. But life with the in-laws is hotter still,” says a folk song of the period.

Since then, however, Korea’s love affair with the hot spice has been joyous and passionate. Koreans now produce more than 200 different chile-stuffed varieties of kimchi using everything from cabbage, radish and shrimp to pickled fish, ginger and cucumbers.

In the process, it’s become inextricably linked with Korean culture. Koreans say “kimchiiiiiiii” instead of “cheese” in front of cameras, compare its taste to a baby’s first contact with its mother and even say it’s caused the fiery national temperament.

Some Japanese believe its nutritional power is the secret behind Korean women’s long legs and smooth skin. Others claim it’s so strong it has caused Korean athletes to fail doping tests. It’s been called a psychological and physiological lifeline for Koreans and touted as a sure-fire way to live longer.

During the Vietnam War, the government commissioned scientists to produce canned kimchi in order to bolster sagging troop morale in Southeast Asia. “Kimchi is like air to Korean people,” said Joo Young Ha, assistant professor with the Academy of Korean Studies and a former curator of eight years at Seoul’s Kimchi Museum. “They don’t notice it until they’re without it.”

And in the mid-1990s, South Korea and Japan faced off in a kimchi trade war after Japanese food companies sought to re-brand it as a Japanese food under the name “kimu chi” before an international trade panel ruled in South Korea’s favor.

“Japanese kimchi is not genuine kimchi,” sniffed a Web site devoted to the dispute. “It is nothing but copycat kimchi.”

Koreans eat 40 pounds of kimchi annually per person, on average, with museums, foundations and research institutes now devoted to the beloved national pickle. Even as consumption of other traditional foods has declined globally in the face of fast food’s relentless onslaught, kimchi has held its own and even found its way onto burgers and pizza.

One big impediment to spreading kimchi abroad is its strong smell. Foreigners often complain of the garlic and chili odor lingering in elevators and hallways long after lunch.

Seoul-based Cheil Jedang Foods, one of some 60 kimchi makers in South Korea, has done research on an odorless variety made with dehydrated vegetables, although many Koreans counter that such watered-down versions miss the point.

In recent weeks, top kimchi makers have labored to keep up with demand as the kimchi-SARS theory has spread. Major producer Dongwon saw its sales rise 46.2% during the first quarter; rival Doosan’s sales were up 40% during the same period to 7,000 tons; and Pulmoowon reported a 44% sales increase in April.

North Korea has publicized the food’s curative power on state television even as demand in China for the Korean export has shot up sharply, with Shanghai specialty grocery stores reporting sales up 67%.

“My words spread to all the countries, even China and the United Kingdom,” said Hong. “I didn’t intend any commercialism. I just wanted that many more people could become healthy.”