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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Not Your Average Cabbage

Air Date: Week of

Kimchi is kept cool and stored in earthenware pots. (Photo: ouhdeyeah)

Boston celebrates the national dish of Korea with its first annual Kimchi pickle-off. The pungent spicy cabbage brought out plenty of Korean-Americans, farmers and foodies to indulge in fermentation fervor. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.


YOUNG: The national dish of Korea is a spicy, pickled salad called Kimchi. It’s known for its peppery flavor and distinct, pungent aroma. It’s an acquired taste for some, an obsession for others who credit Kimchi with improving health and the environment.
Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah got a taste at Boston’s first Kimchi cook-off.

MAN1: I like my Kimchi to be very spicy, very garlicky.

PENELOPE TAYLOR: I have this spicy throat. [COUGH COUGH]

Enthusiasts debate the best way to eat kimchi. (Photo Credit: Penelope Taylor)

MAN2: But, you know, it requires some fortitude:

SRISKANDARAJAH: It’s not for the faint of palette. But as this bustling hall in Theodore Parker Church in West Roxbury demonstrates, foodies of all sorts go crazy for kimchi.

LEWIN: My name is Alex Lewin; I’m one of the co-organizers of the Kimchi Festival and I’m one of the judges. If you open one jar of kimchi in a room the whole room smells like kimchi, and if you open—we probably have 25 jars of kimchi in here—yeah it’s sort of sensory pandemonium.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The base of most kimchi concoctions contains pickled cabbage and chili pepper paste with a mixture of vegetables: scallions, radish, ginger and garlic. Non-traditional entries in the kimchi-off experiment with cranberries, honey and bits of chocolate.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Armed with a clipboard and palette cleansing barley tea Lewin weaves through the crowd tasting the two-dozen contest entries.

LEWIN: We have in our head a list of qualities of good kimchi—the right amount of saltiness, you know, there’s a wider array for sourness, you can have a younger kimchi that’s not as sour, a more fermented one that’s more sour. You want it to be crunchy you don’t really want it to be too soggy.

ROELOFS: The smell… it’s the smell of life.

(Photo Credit: Minwoo)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Cora Roelofs, who conceived the festival, sports a traditional Korean coat.

ROELOFS: Yes, I’m wearing a hanbok; it has actually kimchi pots on the bottom of it, decorative kimchi pots.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The small, blond lady festooned in fermentation vessels is not out of place among the cult-like devotees here today. Kimchi whips up such fervor not only for its flavors, but as Roelofs puts it, for…

ROELOFS: The wonderful delights of the fermented food and their health and life-giving properties so…

SRISKANDARAJAH: Kimchi has been championed as one of the world’s healthiest foods. Researchers have suggested it boosts immunity to SARS virus and a nutritionist working on erectile dysfunction recommends it over Viagra.


SRISKANDARAJAH: You don’t have to look far to witness Kimchi’s nutritional power. Martial artist Ing Won Jong pops a hunk of orange cabbage into his mouth, flexes for the audience and prepares to leap over a line of girls to break a wooden board.

WOMAN: The girl’s covering her head.


SRISKANDARAJAH: And do you think Kimchi made you stronger?

Kimchi is kept cool and stored in earthenware pots. (Photo: ouhdeyeah)

JONG: Yeah of course, I have eaten over thirty years. Yeahhh.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And it’s not just healthy. Local, farmer and Kimchi contestant, Greg Maslow says preserving food is key to sustainable living.

MASLOW: Anytime you can get people thinking about making their own food and preserving food it has a lot of environmental implications. For example with Kimchi or sauerkraut it’s a way to extend the season of eating local and you’d be able to ferment food and keep it all the way through until to the next year some point.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The art of fermentation is one of the oldest, easiest ways to preserve food. For over 3,000 years Koreans have been chopping up spices and vegetables and burying them in stone clay pots. No electricity or preservatives—just a jar and some patience.

The Kimchi song: "Spice up your heart and empower yourself."


SRISKANDARAJAH: But while anyone can make a kimchi, the perfect kimchi is a thing worth celebrating.

ANNOUNCER: Best kimchi in show for the first annual Greater Boston Kimchi Festival goes to Patricia Yu for her radish kimchi —

SRISKANDARAJAH: What do you think is the secret to the winning kimchi?

YU: I used whole radishes. I’m not sure what the secret to the whole kimchi was. I really don’t know.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The mystery may continue to elude us. But there’s no shortage of aficionados trying to unlock the secret to kimchi. And for its health and ecological benefits many are singing its praises.


SRISKANDARAJAH: For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.




Check out Alex Lewin’s blog about palatable pickles.


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