Market data showed Tuesday that the price of cabbages, the main ingredient for kimchi, has soared to almost double that of last year at giant hypermarket chains, which are known to offer the best bargains for grocery goods.
A cabbage head cost 1,580 won on average last year, but the price now hovers in the 2,500-won range, according to Shinsegae E-Mart and Lotte Mart, the country's largest discount chains.
Needless to say, this is bad news in a country--well, the only country on earth--which consumes the fermented cabbage and pepper dish with literally every meal. I was trying to think of other foodstuffs so uniquely associated with a particular nationality, and had a hard time of it: gefiltefish, perhaps, or injera, that spongy Ethiopian bread.
Kimchi is ubiquitous here, and for good reason, as I learned at the Kimchi Field Museum: it provides lactobacillus bacteria which are necessary in the proper digestion of carbohydrates. In the traditional diet of Korea, it takes the place of dairy-borne lactic acid-creating bacteria.
There are about 200 varieties of kimchi, though the most common is plain old cabbage kimchi or baechu kimchi. My totally unlearned theory is that the name originated from the Chinese bok choi, though Wikipedia says the variety of cabbage is Napa.
Kimchi is more than just a side dish--it sometimes moves to the fore in Korean cuisine, in dishes like kimchi jjigae (stew), kimchi pajeon (sort-of pancake), haejangguk (hangover-relieving soup), fried kimchi (usually served with samgyupsal), etc. Many Korean homes have a separate kimchi refrigerator.
Anyway, back to the news item: apparently the inflation is not due to the worldwide recession or devaluation of the won, but to more pedestrian factors:
Kim [Jun-ho, a vegetables merchandiser at Lotte Mart] said that prices are expected to remain high this year as the supply of cabbages, turnips and radishes have dipped across the board due to a weeks-long drought and unusually high temperatures.
The story also points out that many housewives feel burdened by making their own kimchi, and are turning more and more to packaged, ready-made products, "which have already become vastly popular among the younger generation." Pulmuone, sponsor of the Kimchi Museum, is a major player in this market.
Bonus Photographs: To go with your store-bought kimchi, why not drink some TRENDY WINE? This was a shameless bin in the wine section of the Hyundai Department Store in Mok-dong: