The crisis over cabbage

The main ingredient in the national dish has been hit by blight

The crisis over cabbage

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Koreans eat over two million tonnes of kimchi a year. The dish, composed of fermented cabbage, radish and chili paste and served with every meal, is such a staple that in the 1960s, when Seoul sent soldiers to fight in Vietnam, special arrangements were made to equip the men with kimchi. More recently, scientists prepared for the first South Korean astronaut’s trip into space by designing a bacteria-free kimchi that would not mutate in orbit.

So it is nothing less than a national calamity that bad weather has blighted the latest crop of napa cabbage—kimchi’s sine qua non—causing prices per head to spike from $4 to $14 or more. The government has responded with bailouts that haven’t assuaged the public. When President Lee Myung-bak assured his countrymen he would only eat kimchi made from the rounder cabbages more common in Europe and North America, South Koreans responded with anger, pointing out they aren’t much cheaper. “That is like Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Let them eat cake!’” wrote one blogger.

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