By Kim Tong-hyung
Park, a 64-year-old housewife in Seoul, has been making kimchi ― the Korean staple side-dish of fermented cabbage ― for her family for decades. She doesn’t intend to stop now, but the rapidly inflating prices for napa cabbage ― the main ingredient for the most common ``baechu’’ kimchi ― has her agonizing over how to manage it.
Normally, Park would buy around 60 to 70 napa cabbages ― the green, cup-shaped type of Chinese cabbage that is also known as celery cabbage ― for the fall ``gimjang” season, when families usually make kimchi for the winter and earlier part of the new year.
However, with the price of locally-produced napa cabbage touching the 10,000 won (about $8.8) a head range recently, representing about a four-fold increase from just two months ago, Park is forced to make some unpleasant adjustment.
``There have been a number of years when baechu (napa cabbage) prices rose dramatically at the time of the gimjang season, but I really think this is the severest spike I have experienced in my life as a housewife,’’ said Park, who has ruled out using the cheaper round cabbage ― the type conventionally consumed in North America and Europe ― as suggested by President Lee Myung-bak.
``I am normally strict about the ingredients that go into my kimchi ― I bought cabbage and radishes only from producers in certain areas and made my own chili powder and `saewoojeot’ (fermented shrimp) that goes into it. Obviously, I can’t afford to be too picky this year, and I think my only option is to buy cabbages imported from China,’’ she said.
In a country that has to deal with a fragile economy, worsening unemployment, snowballing household debt and the tantrums of a certain nuke-wielding dictator, the soaring cabbage prices appear to have achieved status as a national crisis.
As of Friday last week, napa cabbages were selling at 7,400 won apiece at the southern Seoul outlet of Hanaro Mart, a national retailer of agricultural produce, from just 2,400 won a month ago and up more than 200 percent from the same period around last year.
Other major discount chains, such as E-Mart, were selling their cabbage at a similar price, and although this represented a drop from the prices of the previous week that hovered over the 10,000 won threshold, the cost is still outrageously high for the average consumer.
Cool and dry conditions are crucial for growing napa cabbage, but an abnormally rainy September has resulted in a sharply-reduced harvest with farmers witnessing an immense amount of their vegetables ``melt’’ in the fields before harvesting. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries estimates that the production of premium ``goraengji’’ cabbage, which are mostly produced in mountainous regions, have declined by 30 to 40 percent compared to last year.
This has the nation scrambling to adjust. Restaurants, which have been providing kimchi and fresh vegetables like lettuce for free, are now charging consumers for refills and 2,000 won seems to have become the standard price. Companies and schools are replacing the baechu kimchi in their meals with alternatives made from radishes, such as ``yeolmu kimchi’’ and ``kkakdugi.’’
Radishes, as well as other vegetables like cucumber, are also popular choices among housewives. Park even stores the small portions of kimchi included in delivery food.
The popularity of packaged kimchi has been soaring lately, but to the disappointment of consumers, food companies Pulmuone and CJ Cheiljedang say that their increased spending on cabbages and other main ingredients will soon be reflected in the prices of their products.
Alerted by the situation, the government announced Friday that it will be temporarily suspending tariffs on cabbage and radish produced in China, while importing more than 150 tons of fresh vegetables from the country this month, including 100 tons of cabbage.
However, the emotional resistance toward buying Chinese cabbage is evident among consumers here. In 2005, Korea and China engaged in a trade dispute over Chinese-made kimchi products after the Korea Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found them to be contaminated by parasite eggs.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government is vowing to try harder to make locally-produced cabbage more affordable. The municipal government says it will secure around 1,000 tons of cabbage and provide them to the Seoul’s major outdoor markets at prices about 30 percent lower than average levels through Oct. 20. The city plans to shed prices by subsidizing 30 percent of the auction price of cabbage and transport costs.