Much like everything else, food is also an intrinsic part of one’s culture and national identity. Ask an Indian, who is ultra possessive about their food. They will groan and fight anyone who says Indian food is all about curries, or that it is a ‘one spice’ food.
Similarly, ‘kimchi’, which the world knows as a South Korean dish and associates with the country, is going through a bit of an identity crisis right now, having been caught in a culinary war between China and South Korea.
According to a recent CNN report, the iconic fermented vegetable dish became a bone of contention when South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism released a notice saying it is amending the official guidelines on “the appropriate foreign language” for a few “Korean foods”. Among them was a provision that stated ‘xinqi’ became the new official Chinese name for ‘kimchi’. Per the report, the old translation ‘pao cai’ (which means salted fermented vegetables) would be retired.
Why did this happen?
It mostly stemmed from the fact that there are no Chinese characters to represent the pronunciation of ‘kimchi’. Which is why, the ministry is believed to have considered some 4,000 Chinese characters before deciding on ‘xinqi’; it said it sounded somewhat ‘kimchi’.
Interestingly, ‘xinqi’ comprises two Chinese characters — ‘xin’ meaning ‘spicy’, and ‘qi’ meaning ‘unique’, or ‘curious’. “With the use of the word ‘xinqi’ for ‘kimchi’ in Chinese, the ministry expects Korean kimchi and Chinese pao cai to be differentiated clearly and the awareness of South Korea’s traditional dish kimchi will be raised in China,” the release read.
While the latest guideline is mandated for the South Korean government and affiliated organisations, it is only a recommendation for private South Korean companies that need to translate the word ‘kimchi’ into Chinese, the report explains.
Expectedly, it kicked off debates in both these countries.
What is the difference between the two foods?
Per the CNN report, ‘kimchi’ is a term for fermented vegetables in Korea, mostly referring to fermented napa cabbage with seasonings — including red chili pepper, garlic, ginger and salted seafood. Pao cai, on the other hand, means ‘soaked vegetables’ in Chinese. In it, pickled vegetables are made by soaking different greens in a saline solution — with or without seasonings.
Reportedly, this is not the first time that South Korea has attempted to make ‘xinqi’ the de facto Chinese name for ‘kimchi’. The report states that in 2013, its Ministry of Agriculture had lobbied for a new name in response to the increasing number of China-produced kimchi products in overseas markets, as well as in South Korea. In fact from 2007 to 2011, its imports of kimchi products from China increased by at least tenfold.
According to the CNN report, after an official announcement on the new name was made in 2013, there was a backlash. ‘Xinqi’ became so unpopular in China that the old translation ‘pao cai’ was restored.
This time, too, the name is not doing anything great for Chinese and South Korean netizens. The outlet states that on Chinese social media site Weibo, comments are mostly negative. Some users have refused to use the term, explaining that they think kimchi is a dish influenced by Chinese pao cai. Others have said while they recognise the difference, they don’t like being told how to translate kimchi in Chinese.
Elaine Chung, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Cardiff University and a researcher in East Asia Studies, told CNN, “There are opinions that Korea is appropriating its own traditional culture for the Chinese, as the pronunciation of ‘xinqi’ is quite different from that of ‘kimchi’. It is argued that since ‘kimchi’ (in Korean pronunciation) is internationally recognised already, the government should not invent a Chinese term by compromising the authentic Korean sound.”