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Feb 6, 2000 08:53 AM

Kimchi -- Japan vs. Korea

  • j

Sorry to poste this a day late; yesterday's NY Times business section had a pretty interesting article about Kimchi. Korea is trying to get governing international bodies to regulate kimchi, so that a product soured with acetic acid instead of fermentation cannot be sold as kimchi -- this, because Japanese companies are selling cheap, non-fermented kimchi in Japan and cutting into Korea's export market.

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  1. This made the local papers here in Korea also. It sort of digs at the underlying tension between the two peoples... I'm not sure where I stand on the issue.

    The Korean companies are arguing that kimchi manufacturing has to be objectively governed, so that you have to ferment the cabbage and not use chemicals to imitate that process. And I would be in favor of this since it would tend to raise the quality of all kimchi. But I think deep down there is a popular sentiment here that really only Koreans can make kimchi, although I am sure there are plenty of factories in the US, Japan, and probably Brazil for that matter. On top of that, kimchi is widely consumed in Japan and in parts of the US. I remember I could buy the stuff at a regular Safeway in northern California. I am all for spreading the gospel of Kimchi...I mean, curry is made all over the world, but everyone recognizes that it originated from South Asia and that restaurants of those cultures do a better job than other places. Why not the same with kimchi?

    On the other hand, having Japanese the basest level, it strikes a dissonant chord. German pizza? Russian salsa? Chinese cheese? I am sure these foods exist, but...well, they can exist. Hopefully, there would be an informative way for consumers to figure out which is good kimchi and which is made with chemicals, be they from Korea or Japan.

    Michael Yu

    Michael Yu

    25 Replies
    1. re: Michael Yu

      it's a difficult issue. obviously there's a lot of national pride involved. but in the end, as the debate basically boils down to what name you can call a product, i don't think it will fly that the japanese cannot make "kimchi" per se. that's like mexico saying taco bell can't make tacos, though it would probably be in their best interest to do so. :-) i think mike is right, and probably the best resolution will be that people who appreciate kimchi will be able to tell the difference and will only buy the real thing. at least let's hope so.


      1. re: wonki

        An interesting note: my sister reminded me today that there was a minor uproar in Korea last year when the Japanese tried to register "Japanese kimuchi" as an international trademark. I don't know the details of that incident (anyone?), but it looks like the kimchi wars won't be over any time soon...

      2. re: Michael Yu

        Well, as an American living in K-town, L.A., I must admit that I don't know much on the issue of the "real" way to make it, or what should or should not be labeled as such, but that Japanese kimchi simply TASTES better. Maybe the Japanese one should be recognized as the "real" one, and Korean-style could be labeled to warn customers.

        The only problem is that Japanese tend to recognize only the main 4 or 5 types of kimchi/namul/etc., whereas our Korean supermarket here has a hundred or more. The namul is equally good from either source, but the actual (cabbage) kimchi is far better in Japan...or from our Japanese supermarket here.

        Now, before some xenophobic Korean flames back at me, I'll point out that there are lots of things which were vastly improved by Japan. Certain Chinese foods. Many curries. Even HAMBURGERS...McD's Tokyo is FAR better than any we have ever had in the US.

        1. re: julie id

          "I'll point out that there are lots of things which were vastly improved by Japan. Certain Chinese foods. Many curries."

          I'll leave it for the Koreans to reply to your other comment. But curries ? You got to be kidding ... NO WAY the Japanese improved on any Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean or Indian curry. Howler (our regular Indian chowhound) can teach you more than a few things about Indian curries.

          This isn't a xenophobic flame -- just a reaction to your jingoism.

          1. re: Gary Cheong

            I would venture that most neutral parties (non-Japanese, non-Korean) would choose Japanese kimchi over Korean. I don't make this claim out of thin air; sales figures in SE Asia and Europe support this.

            I agree with you about SE Asia curries...I think you can't beat Thai/Malaysian/Indonesian. This statement in and of itself will prolly get me in trouble with Indians and Pakistani.

            If I had to eat them day-in day-out for months, though, I would soon tire of all but the Japanese ones. Perhaps this is just an argument in support of them being BLAND !!

            Anyway, back to kimchi...that could be the same issue. Perhaps the Korean one is TOO "authentic" for us rednecks, and that is why the Japanese import blows away the Korean one in most countries.

            Certainly, some of my most vivid nightmares are of my husband's family (Pusan) serving up 8-alarm kimchi for 5:30 breakfast....

            1. re: julie id

              Hmm. Believe it or not, I am personally not a big fan of real authentic kimchee. There is a dish called jokbal, which is steamed pork hoof, sliced and cooled off, and bossam which I believe entails sliced steamed pork (again cooled off a bit), both of which are served with some real "authentic" kimchee (along with raw oysters and leaves of cabbage). What the Koreans are getting at with the word "authentic" is that part of the seasoning in Korean kimchee entails the use of jut. Jut refers to a salting agent, something that gives kimchee a seafood-salty falvor. In many cases, kimchee jut will be clam, roe or teeny weeny anchovy based. (So watch out vegetarians...real vegetarian kimchee or buddhist kimchee is actually quite bland). Now, the fear on the side of Koreans is that Japanese industries will forego all of this messy business altogether and will use simply a bit more salt, or worse some chemical agents to push up their sales figures. And then the ultimate fear is that catering in this way to the customer will ultimately give the impression that the Japanese will make the "best" kimchee, based on their worldwide sales figures...I think this is something someone already brought up.

              Korean companies probably could not do this in their home market (at least on a larger scale than at present) because there would be such an uproar. All those home kimchee-makers chucking bits of rotten jut at the mega corporations...not a pretty picture.

              Well where does all this lead. The Korean companies I guess have one hand tied behind their backs because they deal with some pretty stern domestic customers when it comes to Kimchee. They see the Japanese companies doing well, and they think that there is some injustice in this. I do not think they want the Japanese to stop altogether, but they would like recognition that the Japanese are making something different altogether. That is all. And it does make sense. What the person from LA was describing, sounds more like Japanese daikon or pickle variant than Kimchee...But I guess that's pretty normative. Maybe in the end it will all end up like Germany and beer. Other countries brew beer, but the Germans are known to stick to their weird standards (or did the European Union do away with that?)... I would be interested to know. Well, I hope that was muted enough for a "xenophobic Korean's" reaction.

              Michael Yu

              1. re: Michael Yu
                Sinead Kathleen O'Malley B'Hourihan Riley

                > Maybe in the end it will all end up like Germany and beer. Other countries brew beer, but the Germans are known to stick to their weird standards.

                Nothing can compare to the reaction of a bunch of Irish when I lift a pint of their beloved Guiness and declare "WHAT IS this dreck???!?!?!?".

                1. re: Sinead Kathleen O'Malley B'Hourihan Riley

                  Julie, may I suggest that you consider sort of taking things down a notch? We're always delighted to meet new, eager posters, and we encourage strong opinions...but as a group (I'm not speaking as an authority figure here...this is not censorship!) we chowhounds tend to prefer to cultivate a spirit of respect re: different traditions. A big part of being a chowhound is the "vive la difference!" spirit. Some of your harsher postings are strongly at odds with that spirit.

                  Other than that, we're pleased to have you, and glad you seem to like the site!

                  Just a friendly word of advice...please don't take it the wrong way...


                  1. re: Trisha

                    Julie, speaking only for myself, I'd suggest that you stay just the way you are. Please ignore any attempts at censorship, official or otherwise. I probably haven't read everything you've posted, but none of what I've seen (and enjoyed!) has in any way resembled some of the truly personal, nasty interchanges that have been taken place on Chowhound in the past.

                    BTW, "friendly word[s] of advice" remind me just a bit of the kind dispensed by the Bruce Willis character in the new "The Whole Nine Yards."

                    Comments, fellow Chowhounds?

                    1. re: AHR
                      Not P.C., but....

                      If you haven't read her postings, isn't a wee bit premature for you to be taking sides?

                      1. re: Not P.C., but....

                        "If you haven't read her postings, isn't a wee bit premature for you to be taking sides?"

                        Apparently you didn't read mine. I said "I probably haven't read everything you've posted,..." Note carefully the words "probably" and "everything."

                        I have read (and replied to) many of Julie's postings, including that immediate thread, and find them informative, clever, and well-written. She does not deserve a stifling lecture from the PC police.

                        1. re: AHR

                          Someone wrote: "Maybe the Japanese one should be recognized as the "real" kimchi"

                          You've got to be kidding!!! Japanese "kimchi" just doesn't make the grade when you've got a real craving for the hot stuff. Japanese "kimchi" is a kind of spicy pickle. Some people may even prefer it to the real thing, but it should not be confused with Kimchi, with a capital K.

                          "I'll point out that there are lots of things which were vastly improved by Japan. Certain Chinese foods. Many curries."

                          OK, for a while you were talking my language, but then you brought up curry, or should I say "kaaree". Sorry, the Japanese article just doesn't cut it. Even when spicy, it's totally one-dimensional. Can't eat it two days in a row.

                          There is one good thing the Japanese did with curry: put it into donuts. One of my all-time favorite breakfast treats.

                          Anyhow, I'm glad to see that there are many other round-eyes out there who love pickled cabbage.

                          Joe O'Brien

                      2. re: AHR

                        No, Trish is right. It's okay to come in here with a contrarian view once in a while--though the idea that Japanese kimchi is better than Korean is meshuggenah--but it's not a great idea to chime in with negative yaps about half the new threads on the site. We all want to hear about culinary experiences different than our own--it's the snide, uninformed dismissal of others that has no place on these boards. That being said...snide, informed dismissal is just grand.

                        1. re: Al Pastor

                          Wow, Al Pastor taking the P.C. view. That's really something!

                          If I can step gingerly into the fray, you all have points. AHR, we DO want different voices...even harsh ones. We don't have sacred cows. We don't want everyone thinking and writing and opining in lockstep. We like nutsy fringey postings, postings with edge (I was the one who stuck up for Joey G, remember!). But, AHR, Trisha went out of her way to try to be friendly and non-authoritarian and make very clear that she wasn't censoring in any way, so it was unfair of you to throw that word back at her. She didn't deserve the severity of your response, though I do understand your point.

                          Julie, we're glad to have you on site, even if (ESPECIALLY if!) you hate Guinness and have unorthodox and undiplomatic views on kimchee. But you'd make more friends if you took a chill pill. Well...half a chill pill. But hey.....nobody's forcing anybody to make friends. It's not a requirement.

                          And I think that's all Trisha was saying ("Bruce Willis"? C'mon!).

                          can we move back to food now? I can see this discussion getting REALLY boring!


                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            Well, it is ironic that I was just on the verge of posting an APOLOGY (well, HALF an apology) when I noticed where this thread has gone lately. I am flattered by AHR's support, but I do confess that my motives WERE a bit less than pure the first day I posted. I do sincerely prefer Japanese kimchi (for much the same reasons as Michael Yu pointed out), but I did indeed INTEND to stir up trouble by my splashy entry into the subject....

                            That having been said, fear not AHR, my basic sarcasm/writing style shall not drastically change, because, after 40-some-odd years of this, it simply CANNOT. But my motives shall be a bit more sincere next time....

                            By the way, I'm neither Japanese nor Korean. Just so anyone keeping score will see that I have no "hidden agenda" for my kimchi preference. I reflect the same masses driving those import statistics in Europe and SE Asia. (I leave out the US specifically because kimchi imports are piddly -- too many domestic producers.)

                            And the same masses that can't STAND Guinness....

                            1. re: julie id

                              Just out of curiosity, are you sure that the kimchi you get from your local Japanese supermarket is indeed Japanese? I only ask b/c I knew of a lot of Japanese stores getting their Korean food supplies from Korean cooks/merchants.
                              As for my two cents regarding the whole kimchi debate, I think that it would be a misguided attempt to regulate kimchi internationally, in the end. As it has been mentioned, hopefully people will recognize & appreciate the real thing. I do understand the concern, however, since the Japanese have appropriated Korean things in the past & presented them as "Japanese" to the world at large. (not that I think there is reason for that particular concern w/kimchi)

                              1. re: Aleece

                                Aleece wrote:
                                "the Japanese have appropriated Korean things in the past & presented them as "Japanese" to the world at large."

                                True enuf. But just to be fair, I should point out that a large number of Korean-operated sushi bars in NYC try to pass themselves off as Japanese.

                                How about a deal: the Koreans stop calling their vinegared rice "sushi", and the Japanese stop calling their watery cabbage "kimchi"??

                                The Yeoman

                                1. re: Joe O'Brien

                                  "How about a deal: the Koreans stop calling their vinegared rice "sushi", and the Japanese stop calling their watery cabbage "kimchi"??"

                                  hee...good one!

                                  1. re: Joe O'Brien

                                    I can understand your gripe with the overall quality of sushi in Korean-operated restaurants. However--just to clarify my original point--these Korean restaurants never claim that sushi is, in fact, Korean in origin, no matter how authentic or inauthentic it is. In contrast, there are plenty of places that claim to serve "Japanese barbecue" w/menus that are almost entirely comprised of dishes derived from Korean food.

                                    1. re: Aleece

                                      Korean ``sushi'' is an entirely different school of fish, and a meal usually consists of different sorts of sashimi (or meat flayed from a living fluke, but that's another story) wrapped in lettuce with a dab of yellow bean paste, a sliver of fresh chile and a garlic clove. Yuk hwe, a sort of Korean version of chirashi flavored with bean paste and vegetables is also popular. It is very good stuff, and not even a little bit Japanese, although the places that serve tend also to serve sushi as a matter of course.

                                      1. re: j gold


                                        just a little clarification, i think the korean chirashi type dish is called hwe dub bap. yuk hwe is the korean version of steak tartare.


                              2. re: Jim Leff

                                I've sent you a brief message via email telling you all about kosher pizza... no, no, telling you why Trisha's comments set my Orwell bell a-clanging.

                                As for ol' Al P., I suspect that he's just in it for the sport; i.e, he couldn't resist a chance to be pithy.

                              3. re: Al Pastor
                                Rosalia Constantina Pollo

                                Who's that lout hiding bravely behind a pseudonym attacking the poor girl?

                  2. re: julie id

                    Kimchi you find at Korean markets are authentic. Unlike other asian food at restaurants in the States most of Korean food they serve are not compromised, in other words, americanized. Therefore I find Korean food very unaccomodating to many virgin-Korean cusine-eaters. However if you really want to explore Korean food or kimchi you should try one that was prepared right. I do not belive that Japaneses could make anything close to genuine Kimchi when they don't appreciate the aroma of real kimchi which is very pungent. Japanese Kimchi, although I've never tried it, sounds tame and unhealthy.

                  3. re: Michael Yu

                    Kimchi is no different from curry or tacos or any other food item. Anyone can make kimchi but how does it compare to that made according to Korean tradition? I've had Japanese kimchi and I find it bland but I've been raised on Korean kimchi. For those who prefer Japanese or any other kimchi, it's no big deal for them to like it and call it kimchi. There will always be demand for both the authentic (traditional) foods and new derivative versions. To each his own. I'm sure that the kimchi market in the long run will be best served by an extension of the product line into different variations.