North Korea’s latest peace offering: Kimchi

Kimchi Festival Seoul
Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

Some peace efforts are tastier than others – especially when they involve kimchi.

In one of most appetizing signs yet of improving relationships across the Korean peninsula, North Korean spicy cabbage has made its debut at a major food festival in Seoul, South Korea.

More than 100 kinds of kimchi from South Korea were on display at the three-day charity event, but the unexpected highlight was the dish from north of the border.

But what does it taste like? Every family’s kimchi recipe is different, but Kim Hyun-a, one of the Seoul Kimchi Festival’s organizers, says there are some key distinctions from the southern version.

“Because the weather in North Korea is cold, it’s hard to ferment things,” said Kim. “So there are kimchi in North Korea that use sugar in them to help the fermentation process.”

“Most Kimchi in North Korea doesn’t include salted seafood, unlike kimchi in South Korea. Kimchi in North Korea is sweeter and lighter in taste. It has a cleaner taste. It uses less chili powder.”

The dish’s debut at the three-day charity event, now in its fifth year, is a highly important part of the recent reconciliation between the two Koreas, said Kim.

“I think it is very meaningful at this time to show North Korean kimchi to Seoul citizens,” he added.

Seoul City Mayor Park Won-son agrees. He says recent meetings between North and South Korean leaders had raised the culinary significance.

“I went to Pyongyang recently with the presidents’ summit, so at that time I had tasted the North Korean kimchi. It’s a little bit special to us, to South Koreans,” he told CNN.

It isn’t the first time that cross-border rapprochement has involved food. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a historic trip to South Korea in April 2018, he joked that he’d brought a gift of North Korean cold noodles to the summit.

United by kimchi

"Koreans feel disappointed when there's no kimchi," says college student Im Soo-ah.

Thousands of people turned out to the kimchi festival, which included 100 different recipes with people in red aprons, red hats and pink gloves pitching in to make the dish.

In further proof of kimchi’s ability to unite nations, there were also participants from around 20 countries, including the United States, Russia, India, Spain, Mexico, Egypt and Iran.

Kai Hess, a designer from California, was just walking by the city hall with his girlfriend when he saw the festival and decided to participate.

“We’ve been traveling the world for the last year going to different countries, having different types of cuisines. Korean [dishes] are our absolute favorites,” Hess said.

Kim says participants made 40 tons of kimchi on the first day. The smell of fish sauce, a key ingredient for kimchi, filled the Seoul Plaza venue.

And there was more pickled cabbage benevolence to come.

Kim said up to 165 tons of kimchi could be distributed to low-income households in 25 Seoul districts at the end of the festival.

“Koreans feel disappointed when there’s no kimchi during meals,” Im Soo-ah, a college student participating in the festival said. “For the underprivileged, it’s hard for them to make kimchi, and because the price of cabbage is so high that kimchi is expensive now.

“By giving kimchi to them, I think we can be helpful in their lives.”

Record-breaking cabbage

On the third day of the festival, November 4, some 3,500 employees from Mercedes-Benz Korea will attempt to break the Guinness World Records for the most people making kimchi simultaneously, Kim said.

The current Guinness record is at 2,635 people achieved by Korea Yakult Corporation in 2013.

Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine. South Koreans consumed about 1.94 million tons of kimchi in 2017, according to the World Institute of Kimchi.

The dish is typically made by salting cabbage and mixed with red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, salted seafood and fish sauce.

In late fall, people gather together to make large quantities of kimchi to sustain through the winter in a practice called kimjang that’s now a UNESCO-recognized cultural activity.

“Kimchi is a very traditional culture of Korean food. It’s really important for the Koreans to make kimchi and share it together with all communities and villages,” Mayor Park said.

“Koreans cannot live without kimchi. When people go overseas, they bring kimchi,” said participant Yoon Seung-jin, 32.

“It’s the most important thing. Kimchi is with every single meal when you’re having Korean cuisine,” Hess said. “I think kimchi is just totally tied to what it means to be a Korean. And it’s not just a food.”