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How South Korea Uses Kimchi To Connect To The World — And Beyond

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How South Korea Uses Kimchi To Connect To The World — And Beyond

How South Korea Uses Kimchi To Connect To The World — And Beyond

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time again for Hidden Kitchens: War & Peace & Food. Today the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, take us into the world of gastro-diplomacy. That's where countries share foods as a way to create connections, spread influence and help resolve conflict. In South Korea, they call it kimchi-diplomacy.

SOYEON YI: Having kimchi in space, you are far from your home planet. When you eat your own traditional food, that makes you feel emotionally supported. In Korea, there's more than 100 kinds of kimchi. I'm Soyeon Yi, first Korean astronaut in space. When I was a kid, couldn't dare to dream to be an astronaut. Korea even doesn't have a space agency.

We had a really, really hard time to feed our own people. Finally, they made a contract with Russian space agency. Korean government decided to develop 10 different kinds of a Korean space food. Two of them was kimchi. One is the freeze-dried kimchi. You add the water and then shake it. And another one is a canned kimchi, like a tuna can. They tried several different ways to radiate kimchi to kill all the micro-organism.

But after radiation, kimchi became so saggy. Kimchi looks like 100 years old (laughter). So I cannot say that it's a really tasteful kimchi. But still, I like it because I can feel my home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAANGCHI: This is Napa cabbage.

YI: Every single meal, I should have a kimchi. Sometimes I have a seven, eight different kinds of kimchi on the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAANGCHI: Cabbage is beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNHUI CHANG: Oh, kimchi, I mean, oh, it really is the heart of it all. Kimchi is fermented cabbage, chili peppers, salted pickles, shrimp, carrots, green onions...

BYUNG HONG PARK: Koreans consume 1.5 billion tons of kimchi a year. My name is Byung Hong Park, Korean Embassy, Washington, D.C. I am in charge of agriculture, food and rural affairs. Korean government started a kind of diplomacy using Korean culture, music, especially Korean food like kimchi. We call the Korean food K food, like K pop music, K food.

SEHEE KIM: Cultural soft power, soft diplomacy, a way of just letting people know who Korea is. My name is Sehee Kim, researcher here at the Embassy of Korea in Washington, D.C.

HYUNJOO ALBRECHT: Korean government gave financial support to some of the Korean restaurants in U.S. My name Hyunjoo. I have my kimchi business Sinto Gourmet in Bay Area. Korean government want more people outside of Korea eat more Korean food.

SI-HYEONG RYU: I'm Si-Hyeong Ryu from South Korea, Kimchi Bus. I'm chef and traveler cooking traditional Korean food. People on the street, if I explain about kimchi, they will understand about Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Si-Hyeong remodeled the used shuttle bus into Kimchi Bus and traveled a total of 32 countries, including Europe, South America and Japan. He introduced Korean food to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) I don't care what they say, I'm in love with you kimchi. You're my favorite food.

JOHANNA MENDELSON FORMAN: The Korean government is very conscious of food culture. The proliferation of Korean restaurants is an extension of that culture. I'm Johanna Mendelson Forman, research professor at the American University. Kimchi is something that they export. Korea uses that kimchi-diplomacy as a way of branding itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: K-I-M-C-H-double E, that's the way we spell tasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The Vietnam War in the 1960s took a heavy toll on the strength and spirits of Korean soldiers. They couldn't go on fighting subsisting on the greasy field rations provided by the American Army.

KIM: During the Vietnam War, the Korean president requested to U.S. government, please send some kimchi to Korean soldiers in Vietnam because the Korean soldiers are so longing for Korean food.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: They asked for kimchi. That's how the Korean K-ration came into being.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAANGCHI: When I was young, my mom used to make 200 heads of cabbage - wintertime Kimjang.

ALBRECHT: We have this ritual Kimjang. First week of November or so, people are getting ready to buy a lot of Napa cabbages. They make huge batch of kimchi. It's very labor intensive. You need the help of others.

CHANG: There was a time when the women would gather, gossip, there would be matchmaking. You know, there would be some marriages that came about during the time of kimchi making. My name is Sunhui Chang, chef and owner of FuseBox, West Oakland. I grew up in Incheon, Korea.

ALBRECHT: Whole village, they schedule. Next Monday, is at Ms. Lisa's house. All other ladies get together in Ms. Lisa's house. They bring their own knife. One person trimming the ginger, one person cut the cabbage, one person cut the radish.

CHANG: Men weren't really allowed to be around. I was always told that if the men started hanging around and touching the kimchi, it would be bad kimchi.

ALBRECHT: My mom and neighbor Ms. Lisa really fight seriously. They're yelling at each other. And a few days after, they're sitting right next to each other cutting cabbage, making jokes together, making food together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are preparing for contact.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Docking confirmed over Kazakhstan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.

YI: I had a special Korean food night in space, part of the kimchi-diplomacy thing (laughter). I made a special Korean dinner for all other six astronauts in space station. I share my Korean space food. That night became a good diplomatic moment among the American astronaut and Russian astronaut. I still remember one of my Russian colleague, he tried to tell me it's good.

But his face told me, oh, what the hell it is. I think food is not just a thing we eat for a living. Food help us trust each other. In Korea, we have a saying. Whoever prepared for you the good meal of the good rice, you cannot betray them.

MONTAGNE: Kimchi-diplomacy was produced by the Kitchen Sisters with Nathan Dalton and Brandi Howell and mixed by Jim McKee. You'll find more Kitchen Sisters stories on their podcast, Fugitive Waves.

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