This textbook takes kimchi seriously.
Bobby McGill of the Busan-based English-language magazine Busan Haps asked me a little while ago to write about the myth of kimchi after, I guess, hearing one too many times that kimchi prevents swine flu or that kimchi will save you money on auto insurance. It appeared in this month's issue in the form of "Kimchi: Is it really all that?" To do a full write-up on that would take 800 paragraphs, not 800 words, and efforts are also hampered by most old articles being subscription only. Nonetheless, it was interesting to look at older descriptions of kimchi by westerners, and I couldn't help but coming to this conclusion:
I don't think it's a coincidence that the myth of kimchi grew at the same time South Korea did---back when it became more than just a country where people were stationed.
Earlier in the article I wrote, looking at earlier descriptions of kimchi by Americans:
Perhaps today's intense pride is an effort to counter how poorly-received it was by foreigners during an era of Korean poverty three generations ago. A 1953 article from the Associated Press said: "Kimchi is something that smells good to Koreans. To Americans, it just smells."
A US army captain was quoted in the piece: "Try to imagine Limburger cheese several stages decayed - and you'll get the idea." Other decades-old articles call kimchi "Korean sauerkraut," "spoiled cabbage," or "jellied, rotten cabbage," and describe it as "highly aromatic" or "pungent." An edition of Lonely Planet not too long ago called it "a reasonable substitute for tear gas."
A quick look at trying to retrieve those articles in a Google archive search shows me they're pay-per-view, nonetheless people with enough time, and ideally with access to articles via a university library, might be interested in tracing descriptions of kimchi in English and noting how kimchi went from merely being a staple of Korean meals to the cultural icon it is among Koreans today. One article I do mention by title in Busan Haps, and one article you should take a look at, is a 1987 New York Times piece, "No Two Kimchis Taste Alike," which should have some familiar-sounding passages; an excerpt:
Culinary authorities hail kimchi as king of the pickles, because it ferments of its own accord, without vinegar. Its fiery juices carry the nation's ''lifeblood,'' cultural historians say. Its glory was certified when the South Korean Government designated kimchi a national treasure. And now, in downtown Seoul, a whimsical 41-year-old scholar named Lee Moon Suk has opened the world's first museum devoted to kimchi - its meaning, its making and, especially, its tasting.
Any way you slice it - and there are hundreds - kimchi is fundamentally cabbage plus a handful of equally humble vegetables, seasoned with red peppers, garlic and ginger. But to people who say that cabbage is cabbage and wonder why this one deserves a museum, Mr. Lee offers only empathy and, perhaps, a sample from the museum's kitchen.
''As a young man,'' he said in a recent interview, ''I was blind to the secrets of kimchi. For years, I studied to be a Presbyterian minister until kimchi changed my life. Today, I am not a reverend but I am still reverent. I carry my gospel to the people in the form of fermented cabbage.''
I don't think it's a coincidence, I'll say again, that we're hearing more about kimchi and it's miraculous powers because we're hearing more about Korea. And I think "foreigners" started to hear more about kimchi and its powers from Koreans around the time Koreans started talking more about their kimchi: right before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.