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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Kimchi's heroic exploits

I have to admit that I am a bit obsessed by the Korean obsession with health food fads. Whereas in the UK the government tries somewhat desperately to get everyone to eat five small bits of vegetation every day and Jamie 'the pukka muppet' Oliver becomes a hero for teaching schoolkids how to tell the difference between a leek and a kiwi fruit, in Korea it seems that every kind of food is scrutinised for its possible efficacy in fighting cancer and just about every other disease known to man. In the ongoing mission to prove that the Korean diet is the healthiest in the world, the findings of intrepid food scientists are regularly reported in the Korean press, often leading to a major shortage of whatever it is they are extolling the virtues of this time round.

In yesterday's Korea Times it was announced that kimchi (Korean fermented chili and cabbage) is "helpful in fighting bird flu". Before anyone starts to panic I think that a kimchi shortage is rather unlikely and the Korean government almost certainly has a backup 'kimchi mountain' somewhere in the country for just such occasions.

Apparently though, kimchi even has its own species of bacteria named Leuconostoc Kimchii, and someone has actually been working on its genome - true dedication to kimchi. Another interesting fact: kimchi is also effective against Newcastle disease. Not sure what this is but it sounds nasty, and possibly involves wandering around drunk on a Saturday night in December wearing only a T-shirt.

Perhaps I should begin to collect these food fad stories from the Korean press for posterity or some sort of pseudo-anthropological research project. On second thoughts, perhaps I won't.


At March 08, 2005 8:29 PM, Blogger hanjuju said...

Sounds like a great topic for a blog of its own! I gotta say, my favorite among the "well being" craze in Korea is the wood charcol [숯] fad (see Supposedly: you can throw a piece of charcoal in the fridge or the trash can as an effective deodorizer or in the rice cooker for better tasting rice. You can relax in charcoal-infused bath water, or filter drinking water through charcoal -- best yet, just drink a glass of charcoal water everyday!

At March 09, 2005 12:08 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Yes, I've never been able to work out how that one squares with the apparently carcinogenic properties of burnt toast or over-barbecued meat. If there is a scientist out there maybe they can enlighten me...

At March 09, 2005 2:49 PM, Anonymous sy said...

All these sound heath-fusses are sort of news to me. When did this thing start - in the late 90's? I mean they are heavy smokers and drinkers at the same time, aren't they? Makes sense.

At March 10, 2005 12:57 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Not sure when all this started to be honest. I don't get the impression that it's that much of a recent thing. You can probably trace some roots back to traditional society and the more holistic treatment of food/medicine in traditional Chinese/Korean medicine. But that is a research project for someone else.

Yes, Koreans do tend to drink and smoke quite a bit, but maybe this is another reason for the health fad obsession. Every society is full of these sorts of contradictions.

At March 10, 2005 5:36 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I've been living in Seoul for about 12 years now. The health/food nexus was very noticeable when I arrived, and if anything has grown in significance since. It clearly has its "roots" in traditional herbal medicine learning and practices. Lately, it has metamorphised into the so-called well-being (promounced "wellbing") phenomenon, and a number of Western companies -- such as Herbalife -- have been able to get in on the act -- in no small part because they also offer "little people" an opportunity to be in buisness for themselves with essentially no capital investment, and quite a few of them have done very well indeed -- Korea's leading Herbalife distributor is a formerly bankrupt dairy farmer who now pockets about USD 3 million annually. In fact, the attraction of the Western product line/business model is such that many domestic companies large and small, eg. CJ and local would-be multilevel marketing operators, have jumped in with both feet. And let's not forget that at least as -- if not more -- important as the putative cancer preventative qualities of this stuff, is its purported efficacy in "putting the lead in your pencil", especially if your falling down drunk or old or both and in combatting the effects of way too much drinking and smoking. The there's the suana culture. The very modern Western-style fitness club wo which I belong also has a full-fledged Korean sauna component that includes both the usual wet and dry saunas and cold, hot and hotter pools and a special set of individual dry saunas constructed with yellow clay, charcoal and crystal and even an walk in icebox that's a bit too reminiscent of a meat locker for me.

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