As a connoisseur of kimchi, South Korea’s national dish, Kim Soon-ja takes a package of the fermented cabbage everywhere -- even overseas.
But there has always been one indelicate matter: how to mask the garlicky and often offensively pungent odor.
“My tour guide asked me not to take out my kimchi in public because it can be distasteful to foreigners,” Kim, 56, says of a trip to Europe several years ago.
Instead of being insulted, Kim went to work on a novel culinary concept that in this country was about as revolutionary as the seedless watermelon: She wanted to take the funky odor out of her beloved kimchi, which ranks among odoriferous global foods such as Limburger cheese and China’s “stinky tofu.”
The ambitious curly-haired woman had already been named by the South Korean Food Ministry in 2007 as the nation’s first kimchi master, a designation that honors her mastery of the dish. Working with a team of food experts, she set to work to come up with a new type of freeze-dried pickled cabbage that doesn’t smell even after water is added, appealing to both foreigners and the fussiest Korean eaters.
Kim says she is the first to create freeze-dried kimchi and has secured a patent.
“When it soaks in water either hot or cold for a few minutes, it will become just like ordinary kimchi,” says Kim, the owner of Han Sung Food in suburban Seoul.
Koreans are crazy about kimchi, the ubiquitous dish that is served with every meal and is available as both entree and appetizer. There are kimchi pancakes, soup and fried rice. Even Western restaurants here offer the dish. And there’s a kimchi museum in Seoul.
As kimchi folklore goes, Koreans began eating the pickled dish about 1,300 years ago. Making kimchi is often a family affair: Parents and children pickle the Chinese cabbage harvested in the fall so it will last year-round. Most South Korean households have a special kimchi refrigerator to keep the odor from contaminating other foods.
Yet in a nation that has set a goal of establishing its cuisine as among the world’s five most popular by 2017, kimchi’s odor has always been a stumbling block. According to a survey by the Seoul-based Corea Image Communication Institute, the unique smell of Korean food is the biggest barrier to globalizing the cuisine.
Even in South Korea there’s a social no-no known as kimchi breath -- the whiff of cabbage seasoned and fermented in chili, garlic and ginger that can send listeners reaching for their handkerchiefs.
Kim, who has run her own kimchi factory since 1986, isn’t stopping with freeze-dried cabbage. She says the concept can be used in beer and wine, and for making such snacks as dried kimchi dipped in chocolate.
“Crispy but yummy!” she says. “Also, it’s full of fiber.”
But not everyone here is convinced that less stinky means better. Food critics suggest that the pungent smell is a fascinating part of the blood-red dish.
“Some people who like freshness could dislike” dried kimchi, says Cho Jae-sun, a food science professor at Kyung Hee University. The dish, an acquired taste, isn’t the same without its telltale aroma, Cho says.
Kim shrugs off such doubters and says she has already taken one order from Japan, even though her product has yet to go into mass production.
Twists on kimchi have come -- and gone -- in South Korea. There was the kimchi burger and kimchi risotto, both now footnotes in the history of the nation’s cuisine.
Kim hopes that her new odorless kimchi will create more global fans of the food.
She’s ready to start her campaign but manages to stop long enough to have her picture taken. She smiles and, as the camera flashes, utters her favorite word in the Korean language.
“Kimchi,” she says.
Park is an assistant in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.