As Korean as Kimchi … or Xinqi?

I started writing a post about making kimchi and wanted to add a bit of trivia. Researching the ‘net, I quickly went down a rabbit hole of intrigue and nationalism. Who knew that kimchi was such a contentious issue between Korea and China? My resulting post was overly long but I couldn’t let go of this bit of news. I decided to break it into two.

This is Part 1 of my post in the series on Korean Cooking. I hope you like it. – Sandy


Think of Korean cooking and you’re bound to think of kimchi. It’s the iconic dish eaten with every Korean meal and a cornerstone of the cuisine. Few would argue that kimchi is as Korean as apple pie is American. Unless of course you’re in South Korea or China arguing over its proper name and cultural ownership.

It started in 2020 when China was certified by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) for making pao cai, a Sichuan pickled vegetable. The Chinese state media, Global Times reported it as kimchi.

” … (the) ISO status, the Global Times newspaper reported, was an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.

The very mention of the word kimchi triggered angry accusations among South Koreans that China was attempting to claim kimchi as its own, when in fact the award covered only pao cai – a type of pickled vegetable often found in Sichuan cuisine.

… South Korea’s agriculture ministry was moved to comment on the latest cultural clash, releasing a statement saying that the ISO approved standard “had nothing to do with kimchi”.

“It is inappropriate to report (pao cai winning the ISO) without differentiating between kimchi from pao cai from Sichuan,” the ministry added.

Justin McCurry.Stealing our culture: South Koreans upset after China claims kimchi as its own.” The Guardian, December 2020

Feelings ran high with the netizens of South Korea and opinions like ““Its total nonsense, what a thief stealing our culture!” and “China’s brazen coveting of kimchi was akin to a “bid for world domination” being shared on social media.

The problem is that pao cai in China is synonymous with Korea’s kimchi and there are no written Chinese characters to distinguish the two.

The South Korean government decided to solve the problem by creating a brand new Chinese name: Xinqi (辛奇)

 Xinqi (辛奇) consists of two Chinese characters: Xin means spicy. Qi means unique, or curious.

With the new name … Xinqi (辛奇) … the Seoul government hopes to draw a clear line between Korean kimchi and Chinese pickled vegetables — the latter of which are called pao cai (泡菜) in China.

“With the use of word ‘xinqi’ for Kimchi in Chinese, the ministry expects Korean kimchi and Chinese pao cai are differentiated clearly and the awareness of South Korea’s traditional dish, kimchi will be raised in China,” the release said.

Maggie Hiufu Wong. “Kimchi’s new Chinese name has become the epicenter of a cultural war … again.” CNN, August 19, 2021

Not surprisingly, the South Korean edict was not well received by China. The name change had been attempted once before in 2013, but most Chinese speaking people refused to adopt it. Current day sentiment is best summarised by this online comment on a Global Times article: “How to call it in Chinese, that’s for us Chinese to make the call.”

To me, kimchi is indisputably Korean. But if I’ve learned anything in my travels, it’s that the origins of East Asian, South East Asian and Chinese cuisines are intertwined. There are fundamental food products and techniques which have been borrowed, adopted and adapted by different cuisines.

Take for instance the ubiquitous soya sauce, a key ingredient in almost every dish. In Chinese it’s called jiàng yóu, in Japanese it’s shoyu; in Korean, ganjang. Another well known but not always identified seasoning is fermented bean paste. It’s the foundation for many soups and stews and is most recognised by it’s Japanese name, miso. In Chinese, it’s called huángdòu jiàng and in Korean, it’s doenjang. The flavor profiles are slightly different but the process to make them is the same. Who’s to say that the origins of fermenting cabbage did not originate in China? Or that it migrated from Korea to China?

However, I live half a world away and I am separated by history and heritage from this discourse. I can only be bemused at the strife over what to me, is self-evident.

Kimchi is as Korean as much as apple pie is all American.

You don’t agree on the apple pie being American?

Ah well, it doesn’t matter. I’m not making a statement on world domination.

Besides, I appreciate a good apple pie, wherever it’s made 😉


In Part 2 of my post, I’ll talk about my cooking school experience in making kimchi. Stay tuned!

14 Comments

    1. Where I grew up, apples and apple pie were always associated with America. English foods meant bread pudding and biscuits (the sweet crunchy cookie). I have no doubt that apple pie is English too. How is it different from American pie? Is it different?

      Liked by 1 person

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