Monday, January 6, 2014

Kimchee and Other National Food History

A recent post at Language Log discussed a South Korean effort to change the ideograms used to represent Kimchee, the Korean national dish, in Chinese.

One of my comments, and follow up to it (some by people much more knowledgeable about the subject than I), discussed the history of this dish and other famous national dishes.  I recap the pertinent posts below:

  1. John said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 1:06 am
    韓 was also the name of a Chinese kingdom towards the end of the BC years.
  2. ohwilleke said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 2:58 am
    As a follow up to John's comment, it is interesting to note that Korea's national dish, Kimchee, is a post-Columbian invention. The spice-hot spice in Kimchee comes from a pepper that is native to Meso-America and probably arrived in Korea via trade sometime in the 17th century CE.
    Korea is not the only country with relatively late arrived signature foods. Kumra the sweet potato of the Maori in New Zealand is a pre-Columbian arrival from South America probably via Easter Island ca. 500-1000 CE. Ireland's famous potatoes are a post-Columbian New World plant, and all of the famous European chocolates are likewise post-Columbian New World transfers. The tea to which the English are addicted was imported by the Dutch India company from Southeast Asia starting around the 16th century. The coffee that Americans started drinking in droves in protest of the English tea trade, of course, originates in Ethiopia. And, the bananas that we envision African primates eating arrived in Africa via Austronesian seafarers probably from Borneo ca. 500 CE. Many of the staple foods of Southern India arrived from the African Sahel where they are native ca. 2500 BCE.
  3. Sohbet said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 7:40 am
    Kimchee has found a place in the Hawaiian barbecue restaurants that are ubiquitous on the US West Coast, but perhaps not so much elsewhere. And of course in the Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine that is diffusing out of LA. In a few decades it will be as American as sushi.
  4. Victor Mair said,

  5. January 3, 2014 @ 11:23 am

  6. From Eugene Anderson, renowned Chinese food maven:

  7. Good grief, people are obsessed with this. Certainly the Koreans are obsessed with kimchi.
    Ohwilleke is only sort of right, however. Pickled cabbage and so forth is well attested as far back as anything complicated is in east Asia. Chiles just got added to an already-perfected thing. They probably substituted for more expensive stuff, possibly long pepper and/or brown pepper, as they did in most of east and southeast Asia (cf change of meaning of "lada" from long pepper to chile in Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia).
    There is a traditional pickle in the Auvergne in France that is just like kimchi. No possibility of contact, so far as I know. Just independent invention. Pickled cabbage of one sort or another is all over Eurasia. It uses lactic acid fermentation, which is interesting in itself….
  8. Bendrix said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 1:58 pm
    Victor Mair, I think what you're saying about the tradition of pickled vegetables could be said of lots of foods, like noodles, dumplings, breads, etc. But I don't think anyone would argue that makes a won ton any less Chinese.
  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 4:10 pm
    Quite the contrary, "won ton" is very much Chinese, and I think that even Julie Lee would approve of this name.
    The Mandarin pronunciation is húntún / húntun 馄饨 / 餛飩, but the Cantonese pronunciation, from which we borrowed the English form, is wan4 tan1.
    Along the right side of this article (, you can see some of the many different ways of writing the name of this stuffed pasta item, which I've sometimes heard referred to lamely as "dumplings" or "ravioli", but "won ton" has definitely become a solid borrowing in English, so everyone can feel confident in using it.
    Húntún / wan4 tan1 is a very old Chinese word that is cognate with hùndùn 混沌 ("chaos"), which John Lagerwey long ago when we were graduate students together at Harvard used to refer to cleverly as "Humpty Dumpty".
    See especially the section on Daoist texts. But compare the translation of Zhuang Zi, chapter 7, section 7 (the last section of that chapter) by Mair in his Wandering on the Way, which may be found here (on p. xxxix) and on p. 71 of the same book (available here):
    The emperor of the Southern Sea was Lickety, the emperor of the Northern Sea was Split, and the emperor of the Center was Wonton. Lickety and Split often met each other in the land of Wonton, and Wonton treated them very well. Wanting to repay Wonton’s kindness, Lickety and Split said, “All people have seven holes for seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing. Wonton alone lacks them. Let’s try boring some holes for him.” So every day they bored one hole, and on the seventh day Wonton died.
    See p. 16 of the following for a brief paragraph on this subject:
    Mair, Victor H. 1994. "Introduction and Notes for a Complete Translation of the Chuang Tzu." Sino-Platonic Papers 48. (pdf available free here:
    For decades I've wanted to write a paper on the cognation of the disyllabic words / morphemes húntún / húntun 馄饨 / 餛飩 ("won ton") and hùndùn 混沌 ("chaos"), together with a study of their origin, which I strongly suspect (am virtually certain) is not Sinitic, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. One of these days I will, since I already have lots of notes assembled for that purpose.
  10. Chris Waugh said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 6:35 pm
    @ohwilleke: The sweet potato is kumara, you were missing an a. And it was my understanding that the modern day kumara arrived after Eurpean contact and the pre-European kumara was considerably smaller. Nevertheless, it's a good example of how awesome the ancient Polynesian navigators were, ranging right across the Pacific as far as South America, then back as far southwest as New Zealand. And yes, it's a comparatively late-arriving "signature food" – later, even, than your 500 – 1000 CE. But then again, human settlement of New Zealand was really quite late, happening in the 13th century according to Michael King's "Penguin History of New Zealand".
  11. Bendrix said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 8:01 pm
    Victor Mair,
    No, I agree completely that won tons are Chinese. The impression I got from your earlier posts was that you were implying the Koreans' cultural claim to kimchee is iffy because pickled vegetable dishes exist throughout Asia. But I was saying the same could be said of many similar foods – that does not mean, however, that a country's claim to its food culture is invalid.
  12. Ferrer said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 8:39 am
    Interesting to note that speaking of lactic acid fermentation of cabbage many dishes have been mentioned, even some from Auvergne in France, and yet nobody has written of Sauerkraut or choucrout. True, Sauerkraut is not spicy, but also highly iconic for Germans and Alsatian French. Actually, Germans are sometimes called Krauts by some foreigners across the Channel.
  13. Jongseong Park said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 1:32 pm
    @ohwilleke: As a follow up to John's comment, it is interesting to note that Korea's national dish, Kimchee, is a post-Columbian invention. The spice-hot spice in Kimchee comes from a pepper that is native to Meso-America and probably arrived in Korea via trade sometime in the 17th century CE.
    Chili pepper probably came to Korea slightly earlier, in the late 16th century. The Japanese who invaded Korea in 1592 and 1597 supposedly found chili pepper growing in Korea. The island of Kyushu in Japan had acquired chili pepper from Portuguese traders earlier, and thence it was introduced to Korea through trade. But chili pepper remained unknown to other parts of Japan, so ironically it was from Korea that it was introduced to the rest of Japan.
    Chili pepper was not actually used in Korean cuisine until much later on, around the 18th century. Before that, it was mainly considered an ornamental plant. Even when it began to be used in Korean cuisine, it was used sparingly because it was an expensive spice. Powdered chili pepper became an essential ingredient in kimchi only after the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
    The most common type of kimchi today is made of napa cabbage, but this only became a popular ingredient of kimchi in the late 19th century. It was not easy to grow cabbages in Korea and it was only when napa cabbage was introduced from North China probably around the middle of the 19th century that it began to be used in kimchi. Recipes from the early 19th century mention several different types of kimchi, but none made from cabbages.
    So the kimchi we know today is a product of globalization, quite different from the kimchi of a hundred years ago, let alone that of a thousand years ago. The two essential ingredients, chili pepper and napa cabbage, are both relatively recent imports to Korea.
  14. Milan said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 4:01 pm
    @ohwillike: It's not unusual for a national dish, and indeed whole national cuisines, to be rather young compared to the history of a people. The potato for example, an integral part of virtually every German meal, wasn't accepted in Germany until the late 18th century, when Frederick the Great promoted its cultivation in order to fight famines.

Kumara probably left South American a century or more before it arrived in New Zealand.

Of course, not all signature foods are recent.  For example, curry has been eaten in the Indus River Valley since the pre-Indo-Aryan Harappan era.

Also, vaguely on point, the pre-historic hunter-gatherer population of Morocco had very high rates of tooth decay, probably due to a very carb-heavy diet of sweet acorns and snails.  The acorns were likely boiled and also likely made into flours, a good reminder of the fact that flour is much, much older than grain domestication.

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