Kimchimongers

By: Chi-Hoon Kim

On September 21, 2010, a record-breaking 200mm of rain fell in Seoul and the surrounding area. The timing of this torrential downpour could not have been more culturally and economically devastating. The heavy rain coincided with the first day of the three-day Chuseok holiday, which is the harvest festival based on the lunar calendar. Chuseok, traditionally a celebration of a successful harvest, turned into a day where rain destroyed many crops, ultimately exacerbating the ongoing inflation of agricultural goods. Although the cost of most vegetables skyrocketed, the rising price of napa cabbage made headlines. The cost of a head of napa cabbage spiked from $4 to $14 during a two-week period. (National Public Radio 2010) Reporting for the Korea Times, Kim Da-ye contextualizes the severity of the inflation by using data from Statistics Korea, a central government organization, which concluded that the price of napa cabbage in September 2010 rose 60.9% from August 2010 and a total of 118.9% from a year ago. (Kim 2010) The Korean media reported that inflated prices and the shortage of cabbage created panic and unrest among the Korean people. (Joongang Daily 2010) Many Koreans who could afford the higher prices rushed to markets to buy as many heads of napa cabbage they could get their hands on, while those who lacked funds became distraught and even stole cabbages from farms. (Donga Daily 2010)

The timing of this crisis added to the magnitude of the shortage because it was two months prior to the start of the kimjang season, which is when families get together to make kimchi for the winter months. In their book Korean Foods, Yu Tae-jong and Yu Young-nan explain, “For months before the actual kimjang season—roughly between the middle of November and the middle of December –women are busy buying the best quality ingredients, like salted and fermented baby shrimp, fermented anchovy sauce, and red peppers. (1997: 96) This demonstrates that making kimchi for the winter months are occupying the minds of Koreans before the actual start of the kimjang season. Even though the actual cabbages are not purchased a month ahead of the kimjang season, the shortage and rising cost lead the Koreans to believe that the crisis may deepen to the point that it would be impossible to make kimchi for the winter.

Kimchi is widely known as a fermented vegetable dish, but more generally, it is a technique used to pickle vegetables to preserve them for longer periods of time. The cabbages are first soaked in water and then quartered. It is brined with coarse sea salt for five hours at room temperature then each piece of cabbage leaf is layered with a mixture of shredded radish, garlic, ginger, fermented shrimp paste, red pepper powder, and green scallions. (Yu and Yu 1997: 97-100) There are more than 200 types of kimchi but the most common one is made with napa cabbage. (Kimchi Museum 2010) For most Koreans, kimchi symbolizes the most basic, affordable side dish that one could have to accompany a bowl of rice, the main staple in the Korean diet. Because kimchi is generally accepted as a dietary staple and a food for the masses that the lower class depends on, the kimchi shortage was a psychological threat to the people’s perceived ability to feed themselves. The government responded to the crisis by eliminating tariffs on cabbage and importing 100 tons of cabbage from China to meet demands. (Rhee 2010) The government announced that the cost of cabbage would return to its usual price by the end of October in time for the kimjang season.

The U.S. media picked up this news piece in early October and spun the story as a form of light-hearted, whimsical entertainment. To explain the importance of kimchi as a dietary staple in the Korean diet to Americans, some media sources selected widely accepted and identifiable American food items for comparison. In an article by Mark MacDonald of the New York Times, kimchi’s significance for Koreans was equated to ketchup for Americans. (MacDonald 2010) While discussing the Korean government’s plan to turn to China to import cabbages and radishes to meet the demand, Nissa Rhee of the Christian Science Monitor drew another analogy by stating “just as Philadelphia cheese steaks from Canada just doesn’t sound quite right to Americans, this might be a bit hard to swallow for Koreans.” (Rhee 2010) Other American media sources followed by equating the kimchi shortage as similar to the act of “forcing Italians to forgo pasta or taking all the tea from China.” (Glionna 2010) The Economist used the heading “Of Cabbage and Kims: Forget Mad Dictators, the Price of Cabbage is What Really Worries Koreans” to report on the crisis. (The Economist 2010) Craig Goodwind, a food writer, referred to kimchi as Thanksgiving turkey in his blog titled, “The Year of the Plenty.” (Year of Plenty 2010) These attempts fall short to capture the importance of kimchi for Koreans but by drawing analogies to omnipresent and popular food items in American diets, the U.S. media attempted to make kimchi more accessible.

During the past two years, kimchi has increasingly become visible and desirable among foodies# in the U.S. Once thought to be too spicy, stinky, and garlicky for the American palate, kimchi has entered the American culinary landscape as a healthy, trendy, and delicious food. In this paper, I explore the recent popularization of kimchi and how it has adapted to American sensibilities through successful marketing. The act of American consumers eating kimchi has now been transformed into Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) notion of cultural capital. I argue that the new wave of kimchi marketing in America is targeted to the educated, cosmopolitan, and affluent foodies in search of authentic kimchi. To draw out this argument, I will explore this argument by examining three artisanal kimchi producers in America that specifically make kimchi for a non-Korean clientele. I will also discuss how the popularization of kimchi in America is centered on elite notions of taste and social status by analyzing its use by celebrity chefs, high-end restaurants, and specialty food stores. By looking at media sources such as newspapers, magazines, and TV shows, I will also demonstrate the ways in which these agents are making kimchi familiar and accessible to a wider American audience.

The Korean government announced in late 2008 that it aims to globalize Korean food by 2017. President Lee Myung Bak is strongly promoting nation branding to increase Korea’s image and economic revenue. (Song 2009) The government hopes to augment exports of agricultural and food products from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $10 billion in 2012. (Yoo 2009) Although it is not certain that this government policy was directly responsible for the growing visibility of Korean food in the U.S., in 2009, clearly more attention paid to kimchi in America. Kimchi has been used as toppings on tacos and celebrity chefs in high-end restaurants have featured it in new dishes.# Upscale Korean restaurants such as Woo Lae Oak in New York City and Los Angeles and David Chang’s Korean-fusion empire in New York City are some examples of Korean flavors fused with American tastes to cater to posh non-Korean sensibilities. On March 7, 2009, Juliet Chung, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, published an article titled “The New Hot Cuisine: Korean” that examined the sudden burst of interest in Korean food in the U.S. Cindy Ayers, the vice president for Campbell’s company kitchen who tracks food trends, notes that in 2008, Korean food was confined to “authentic ethnic places” but in 2009, Korean influences were cropping up all over the country in high-end, fast food, and non-ethnic restaurants. (Chung 2009) Kimchi debuted on many celebrity chefs’ dishes as interesting twists. For example, Wylie Dufresne made a lobster dish with kimchi-banana sauce and Eric Ripert added kimchi jelly on top of a Kumamoto oyster. (Chung 2009) David Chang and Wolfgang Puck make their own kimchi in their restaurants to serve alongside their dishes. (Chung 2009) Frequently, the ingredients, techniques, and conceptualization of celebrity chefs’ dishes display the cutting-edge of avant-garde food. The role of the celebrity chef has been instrumental in presenting the idea that kimchi is valued in the high-end culinary world. Kimchi was pitched as the next new thing in the American culinary landscape and demand for it grew.

Kimchi has long been the boundary marker, a form of barrier of entry into Korean culture. (Han 2000; Lee 2000; Nelson 2000; and Walraven; 2000) Thus, non-Koreans eating kimchi is more significant than one might think. By eating a morsel of kimchi, a non-Korean can cross over to the other side that was once only reserved for ethnic Koreans, which may stir a sense of thrill, adventure, and novelty. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital can be applied to explain the trend of non-Koreans trying and enjoying kimchi. Bourdieu claimed that the acquirement of knowledge, skill, and experience could be converted into higher power and status. (2002: 99-102) Since the buzz around kimchi has focused on cultural refinement, by acquiring a taste for kimchi, a person gains status as a cosmopolitan, educated, open-minded, and cutting-edge foodie. Shun Lu and Gary Fine demonstrate that the consumption of ethnic cuisines in America portrays individuals as “cosmopolitan and tolerant.” (1995: 539) However, non-Korean consumers are looking for mediated spaces where they can try something new within a familiar setting. Lu and Fine discuss how foreign foods need to strike a delicate balance between being traditional and at the same time familiar. They assert that a sense of security must be established so that “consumers can encounter the other, while not straying too far from their own tastes.” (1995: 548) The introduction and acceptance of foreign foods are based simultaneously on diversity and assimilation.

Before the rise of American interest in the spicy fermented cabbage, kimchi was either imported directly from Korea or made locally for Korean communities. The demand for kimchi in the wider American market spurred the growth of new businesses that catered to this new consumer population that associated kimchi as a form of cultural distinction. I will compare and contrast three brands of kimchi sold online that target the trendy and sophisticated non-Korean consumer. I will examine artisanal brands such as Mother-in-law’s Kimchi (MILKimchi), Mama O’s Premium Kimchee, and Granny Choe’s Kimchi Co., all established between 2008 and 2009 and cater to a non-Korean clientele. Although they have varying degrees of economy of scale and distribution networks, Korean Americans are behind these brands, marketing kimchi based on the idea that their potential customers would like to know what they are eating, how and who prepared it, and its cultural significance. I will call these types of kimchi makers kimchimongers to differentiate them from other commercial producers. By analyzing the kimchimongers’ business philosophy, distribution channels, online recipes, and press coverage, to deduce the reason behind the phenomenon of non-Korean consumers buying and eating kimchi.

The three artisanal kimchi companies use themes of tradition, authenticity, and handcrafted food to promote their brands. These values and ideals are pitted against impersonal, commodified, large-scale, and industrial production of kimchi.# These brands project an aura of authenticity because they are founded by Korean-American entrepreneurs making kimchi based on family recipes. MILKimchi, Mama O’s and Granny Choe’s brands also specifically advertise that their kimchi recipe is derived from the entrepreneurs’ elder female family member. The brands are directly linked to a Korean female figure and consumers are introduced to personal stories of why and how the kimchimongers entered the business of selling kimchi. According to their websites, the kimchimongers are all second-generation Korean-Americans who are positioned as the facilitator between traditional Korean culture and modern American life. The kimchimongers convince their customers that they are giving them access to a product that is usually exclusively available to family members or ethnic Koreans. For example, Lauryn Chun, a Korean-American, created MILKimchi in collaboration with her mother. (MILKimchi 2010) Lauryn Chun’s mother makes the kimchi based on the recipe from her Korean beef soup restaurant, Jang Mo Gip (Mother-in-Law’s House) in Garden Grove, California. To create the notion of authenticity and tradition, MLKimchi strategically connects its kimchi to a successful Korean restaurant in operation since 1989 and to Lauryn’s mother’s recipe. MILKimchi leads the consumer to make the connection that the kimchi is authentic because it is the same kind that has been served in a restaurant that has been in operation for more than 20 years, and that it is personally handcrafted because a mother figure has made it. MILKimchi’s website states the motivation of its kimchi business: “After nine years of packing kimchi in her luggage from trips back to New York to share with friends who cheered for more, Lauryn was convinced that New Yorkers would embrace this kimchi which offered a natural depth of flavor coupled with spicy complexity and savoriness.” (MILKimchi 2010) Through this passage, consumers immediately become Lauryn’s friends who crave her mother’s kimchi or want to become her friend to have access to the authentic taste of kimchi.

Without any effort by the non-Korean customer, the barrier to enter into the Korean culture is lifted by eating a batch of artisanal kimchi. The basic assumption of this business model is that only Koreans can make kimchi the correct way from traditional recipes passed down by grandmothers and mothers. The kimchi monger behind Mama O’s brand honors his mother by naming his brand after her and using a caricature of a plump motherly figure on its labels to convey a traditional and old-fashioned Korean mother who is particular about how fresh, natural, and delicious her kimchi is. (Mama O’s 2010) The connection between Korean women as authorities on how to make the best authentic kimchi is also strongly played out in Granny Choe’s kimchi, a grandmother-granddaughter team. The brand explains that Oghee Choe (Granny Choe) was the talent behind its recognition as the 2009 winner of the CRITTER kimchi contest in San Francisco, CA. Connie Choe-Harikul, Oghee Choe’s granddaughter, writes, “Back in the day, awesome kimchi was hard to come by unless you: A) Lived in the motherland or B) Had access to a Korean grandmother.” (Granny Choe’s Kimchi Co. 2010) Connie is projecting herself as a culture broker who facilitates access to authentic kimchi to those who do not have points of contact into Korean culture. She paints her grandmother as detached from American life despite the fact that she has lived and worked as a registered nurse in the United States Connie explains, “Oghee is a genuine Korean grandmother who can’t knit a sweater or bake a snicker doodle to save her life, but who can whip up an electrifying batch of kimchi in less time than it takes for you to say, ‘My taste buds are dancing with joy.’” (Granny Choe’s Kimchi Co. 2010) A photo of Mrs. Choe, Connie Choe-Harikul, and Connie’s daughter accompanies this introduction to their brand. The photo reinforces their strong family bond and focuses on the women’s role as the purveyors and authorities of kimchi. Making the consumer associate kimchi with Korean mothers, who are commonly thought to be guarantors of authenticity and tradition is a clever tactic in creating the niche market for non-Koreans who want to experience authentic kimchi. The kimchimongers are presenting the non-Korean consumers with the tools to decipher Korean cultural symbols through the consumption of kimchi. As Bourdieu argues that consumption is “a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code.” (1984: 2) The non-Korean consumer depends on the kimchimongers to feed them an understanding of the cultural nuances of kimchi because they lack the ability to navigate Korean culture on their own.

The idea of authenticity that is sold by these kimchimongers can be explained through Dean MacCannell’s (1999) notion of front and back regions. MacCannell asserts that due to the displacement felt by people through the process of modernity, they are continuously in search of genuine experiences that are imagined to be located in private, back regions. He contends that “the front is the meeting place of hosts and guests or customers and service persons, and the back is the place where members of the home team retire between performances to relax and to prepare.” (1999: 92) The Korean American kimchimongers are commodifying “homemade” kimchi to feed consumer desire to enter the back regions of Korean culture. The kimchi that these kimchimongers make is grounded in highly nostalgic ideas of mothers cooking for the family. A clip from the Cooking Channel’s episode on MILKimchi has the host of the show visiting the Chuns to learn how to make kimchi. The clip on the MILKimchi website depicts the mother-daughter team happily making kimchi together, laughing, exchanging endearing glances, and sharing words of encouragement. The host, after observing their interaction, comments, “You guys have a great mother-and-daughter relationship, I love it!” (Clip: 1:24-1:31) The segment plays up the ideal mother-daughter relationship that reinforces the idea that eating kimchi made by MILKimchi transports the consumer into the back region of the Chun family. By consuming their kimchi, we can all become Mrs. Chun’s daughters and family members.

To make kimchi approachable to the non-Korean customer unfamiliar with its taste and use, MILKimchi and Granny Choe’s Kimchi offer recipes. This is another way that these brands try to make kimchi more accessible so that consumers can truly believe that they are part of the romanticized Korean family. The recipes featured by both brands can be categorized into traditional Korean food and modern American adaptations of Korean food. The danger of foreignness is mediated by combining familiar items to make it palatable and safe. For example, MILKimchi has Sulung Tang (traditional beef soup) and Granny Choe’s presents kimchi pancakes, fried rice, and stew that are part of the Korean culinary repertoire. Some of the fusion dishes that MILKimchi introduces are Grilled Kimchi and Cheese Sandwich, Kimchi Bloody Mary, Kimchi Frittata, Kimchi Ceviche, and Kimchi Tacos. (MILKimchi 2010) Granny Choe’s offers kimchi stuffing and kimchi salsa as new ways to incorporate kimchi into American diets. (Granny Choe 2010) These fusion recipes are an attempt to expose non-Koreans to kimchi and normalize it so that it can be integrated freely into various dishes. Repackaging kimchi to be more acceptable to Americans has facilitated the process of marketing kimchi. According to Richard Wilk, this process can be understood in terms of appropriation. Wilk explains, “Through appropriation a local culture absorbs and then neutralizes the invader by transforming it into something that ‘fits’ its own history.” (2006: 7) The kimchimongers act as cultural guides in introducing kimchi and suggest diverse ways to use them without forcing the consumer to abandon familiar ingredients and cooking methods. Even though the fusion recipes are not true to the Korean way of using kimchi, the consumer still senses a connection to Korean cuisine in a safe, mediated space. Paring commonly liked foods with a new and foreign item could lead to enhanced acceptance. Rozin articulates two social factors that determine how taste for a certain food is created. He explains, “First, social pressures (custom, the behavior of elders, the foods made available to the child) essentially force exposure, and as have seen, exposure fosters liking. Second, the perception that a food is valued by respected others (e.g., parents) may itself be a mechanism for the establishment of liking.” (1987: 188) Kimchimongers employ these methods to enhance the image of kimchi and create a sense of social value and respect by placing it in prestigious media sources, tooting its health benefits, and selling it in upscale food stores such as Whole Foods Market, Dean & Deluca, and Zabar’s.

Kimchimongers create a sense of value and respect of kimchi by showcasing press coverage on their websites as a form of endorsement. MILKimchi boasts on its main page that its product was featured in Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, and the Cooking Channel. Granny Choe’s brand received media attention from Cooking Light (April 2010), Diet & Nutrition (September/October 2009), and Food & Wine (December 2009) magazines. The favorable media coverage reinforces the idea that their brand is authentic, trendy, and handcrafted and indicates a broader cultural acceptance. In Elle magazine (May 2010), under the heading “Demented for Fermented: Microorganisms Go Luxe.” MILKimchi is described as “small batch, cultishly adored Korean Kimchee.” (MILKimchi 2010) MILKimchi, Granny Choe’s, and Mama O’s brands emphasize their artisanal approach to making kimchi that is aimed at non-Korean consumers searching for products that will help increase their cultural capital.

Another strategy kimchimongers use to elevate the status of their brands is to emphasize the healthful properties of kimchi. MILKimchi describes kimchi as good for the digestive system due to its probiotic quality. It explains, “Probiotic food contains beneficial bacteria that aid in maintaining the balance of microorganisms in our body’s intestinal tract and promoting healthy digestive systems. Well fermented kimchi produces lactic acid (Lactobacillus) which helps your digestion.” (MILK 2010) Granny Choe’s brand also promotes the healthful properties of kimchi by stating, “Kimchi’s nutritional benefits are great enough for Health magazine to have declared it one of the ‘World’s Healthiest Foods.’ Fresh kimchi is rich in Vitamins A, B, and C, and like yogurt, it is teeming with good-for-you bacteria. Yum!” (Granny Choe 2010) The brand also claims that their kimchi is “all natural, preservative-free, and vegan.” (Ibid. 2010) Kimchi is not traditionally vegan since the fermentation processes is initiated with fermented shrimp paste or fish sauce. Vegan kimchi is an example of Granny Choe’s brand recognizing that vegans are major constituents of their product and adapting the traditional recipe to cater to their dietary restrictions.

Another factor that determines the sophisticated image of these kimchimongers is their distribution networks. All three brands are in direct competition with one another because they are after the same consumer sector. These brands are available in high-end venues in New York and California. For example, MILKimchi and Granny Choe’s brands are available at select Whole Foods Markets. MILKimchi or Mama O’s also are sold in upscale specialty food stores in New York City such as Marlow and Daughters, Dean and Deluca, Essex Market, Murray’s Cheese, Zabar’s, and the Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel. Since these vendors are purveyors of high-end gourmet specialty foods, the placement of the artisanal kimchi in these stores acts as an endorsement that reassure the customers that these brands are trustworthy, highbrow, and authentic. The price of these artisanal kimchi brands points to the target audience the kimchimongers have in mind. The price of a 17oz packet of imported Chong Ga Jip kimchi, a popular brand in Korea, is usually sold for $5.99 in Korean grocery stores in New York City. In contrast, the artisanal brands range from $8.99 to $10 for a jar of kimchi.# The elevated price is indicative of a business model based on marketing brands as sophisticated, modern, and artisanal. They sell their brand to the affluent foodies who are willing to pay the price for a taste of genuine kimchi.

Kimchi as a widely consumed dietary staple in Korean culture has become incorporated as a cosmopolitan condiment in America. The lighthearted U.S. media presentations of the kimchi crisis in Korea is indicative of the position kimchi occupies in the American diet. Repackaging kimchi to appeal to an educated and wealthy consumer creates a niche market for traditional, authentic, small-batch kimchi. Kimchimongers capitalize on non-Korean consumers’ desire to imagine themselves as cosmopolitan and open-minded foodies. They specifically cater to these sensibilities by employing sophisticated marketing, labeling, and story-telling strategies. The Korean-American kimchimongers successfully manipulate their dual memberships in American and Korean culture to navigate and establish a niche market. Kimchimongers make it easy for non-Korean consumers to approach kimchi and gain the impression that they have truly obtained cultural capital.

Chi-Hoon Kim is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology of Food program at Indiana University. Her research is focused on Korea and airline meals.

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One Response to Kimchimongers

  1. Christopher Kim says:

    Hello,
    Great article! It was very informative for me, as I am a half-Korean/Canadian interested in starting my own Kimchi making business. I will use this article as a future resource. Thank you very much.

    Christopher Kim

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