Kimchi institute chief welcomes bold experimentation

Arthur Han, Nov. 28, 2016, 9:29 a.m.

Kimchi is a soul food that Koreans can’t live without, but foreigners may find it hard to eat the spicy, fermented cabbage at first due to its strong scent of salted fish and garlic.

To make it more accessible to those who first try it, tweaking, combining or even transforming the traditional recipe could help expand the presence of the major staple of Korean cuisine in the global culinary scene, the new head of the World Kimchi Institute said.

Ha Jae-ho, who took the helm of the organization under the state-run Korea Food Research Institute, said his goal is to promote kimchi at home and abroad by conducting academic research on its health benefits and supporting various cultural events to boost related businesses.

While discovering and preserving authentic food culture is the foremost task of the institute, the food expert was open to the total transformation of kimchi by foreign chefs, such as making cocktails with its extract and snacks with its powder.

“I think foreigners are trying new recipes to make it easier to eat, which is positive in a way that opens up new opportunities. I think foreign chefs can try bold experimentation because they have no prejudices toward kimchi,” Ha said in a written interview with Yonhap News Agency.

“If they alter the original form of kimchi to make it more approachable, it could lower the barrier to foreigners and bring interest to the authentic recipe later on.”

While the 59-year-old believes kimchi goes best with a bowl of warm rice, like a typical Korean, he acknowledged the need to evolve its taste and the way it is consumed to suit the changing eating habit of youngsters, noting the decreasing consumption of kimchi.

“Although elder Koreans don’t have difficulties with eating kimchi the way it is, kimchi products should evolve to catch up with changing tastes,” Ha said. “Such transformation could be effective for Korean kids who growingly eat less of the Korean traditional dishes after being exposed to Western food culture.”

The institute has sought ways to develop various kimchi products to embrace a wider consumer base, including a do-it-yourself kit, small packaged products and kimchi sauces and seasonings.

“As Westernized menus are expected to have continued popularity in the near future, we have to develop kimchi products that can match new menus and fusion dishes,” said Ha, who has conducted food-related research at state-run food institutes for over 30 years.

Since its launch in 2010, the Gwangju-based institute, located 330 kilometers south of Seoul, has operated the World Kimchi Information Service System, which offers information on regional differences, specific methods and ingredients of kimchi as well as academic research on its microbiotics. It also has held kimchi-making events, or kimjang, in 10 nations in Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East.

As its researchers have collected historical documents to make a digital archive and interviewed local artisans to discover stories from each region, Ha hopes their efforts promote discussions on kimchi and how it has affected the Korean identity and family culture.

The whole process of making kimchi -- washing and salting vegetables, saucing them with garlic, red pepper and salted fish, then burying it underground in breathable clay jars -- was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

“Kimchi is an everyday side dish that can‘t be missed on a Korean table, and is soul food because it makes Koreans emotionally feel hungry when they can’t have it,” the food science doctoral degree holder said, noting the institute has held symposiums on “kimchiology” since 2013.

Though making and sharing kimchi in large quantities in early winter was an essential part of community life in the past, Ha said more people are buying pre-salted cabbage and keep kimchi in special refrigerators instead of burying it underground.

The expert said the pursuit of a more convenient way to make kimchi is an inevitable trend in modern life because more people live in cities and the size of households has shrunken over the past decades.

“With the rise of single-person households, more consumers will prefer more convenient ways to make kimchi,” he said. “Kimchi refrigerators and underground storage work under the same principle, because both are aimed at keeping kimchi at certain temperatures to facilitate its fermentation. While underground temperatures range from minus 2 to 4 degrees Celsius in winter, you can set a kimchi refrigerator's temperature from minus 1 to 2 degrees Celsius to preserve kimchi for a longer period of time.”

As part of the broader trend, Ha said kimchi will become a mass-produced food product like other traditional sauces, such as ganjang (soybean sauce), gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste), which are made in factories and widely sold in local supermarkets.

Taking up the three-year stint at the institute, Ha hopes to promote not just kimchi, but also traditional Korean food culture and the stories behind different types of kimchi and their origins to share with people around the world.

“People will not unconditionally accept new foods because it’s hard to change one’s taste buds,” he said. “We will seek ways by conducting studies on different food cultures and business strategies to help it harmonize with other cuisines.” (Yonhap)

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