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Modern science may be savior of traditional food

Dec 18,2017
There is a very fine line between fermentation and decomposition. This is especially true when making kimchi - 1.5 grams of salt has to be added for every 100 grams of kimchi to stop it from rotting. Often, more salt is added to bring out the flavor. Homemade kimchi will often use around 3 to 6 grams of salt in every 100 grams of kimchi.

However, growing awareness of healthy eating has raised concerns that the excessive consumption of salt can be harmful to the human body. As more and more Koreans look to reduce the amount of sodium they are consuming, low-salt kimchi has risen in popularity. Most low-salt kimchi is made using the minimum amount of salt - 1.5 grams - but this impacts the flavor of the popular side dish.

One kimchi manufacturer, Doctor Asahan, is taking a different approach. By fermenting kimchi not in salt but lactic acid bacteria extracted from wild flowers, the manufacturer is able to offer a truly low-salt alternative.

The company was founded in 2013 by three young entrepreneurs who had developing the lactic acid method in 2012. Sales have increased at least 20 percent a year to reach approximately one billion won this year. The manufacturer even started exports to Hong Kong.

“We plan to conduct research and development to make kimchi that receives recognition not only from Korea, but also abroad,” said CEO Nam Woo-young. Doctor Asahan’s lactic acid kimchi is an example of Korean traditional food evolving in line with modern tastes and technology.

Seoil Farm, located in Anseong, Gyeonggi, is famous for its cheonggukjang, or fermented bean paste that serves as the base for red pepper paste and soybean paste - both crucial ingredients for Korean food. Its cheonggukjang is made using the traditional method - the beans are boiled for eight hours in an iron pot and fermented in a room covered by cypress trees.

The farm is led by Suh Boon-rye, a “cheonggukjang master” certified by the government in 2015 for having developed a recipe similar to a traditional one found in an agriculture and cook book from the Joseon Dynasty.

Until recently, the paste was only known by a small group of loyal customers, but this year, sales have doubled compared to 2016. The reason behind the recent success is the farm’s decision to alter the recipe to greatly reduce the smell particular to cheonggukjang that had put off younger customers. Another factor was offering smaller packages suitable for a single meal, which appealed to the lifestyle of younger consumers and single households.

Suradang’s “rice cupcake” is also a good example of traditional Korean food getting a modern twist. Like other rice cakes sold by the manufacturer, the “rice cupcake” is basically steamed tteok topped with foreign ingredients like cheese, exotic fruits and nuts. The product is popular among consumers in their 20s and 30s and the company has launched more than 10 stores in the metropolitan area.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation have been actively promoting traditional food this year.

In August the agricultural corporation created a group of 15 internet savvy fans of traditional food to participate in various events and upload posts online. The PR stunt is an attempt to raise the profile of traditional food among younger consumers.

The Korean Traditional Food Culture Center located in Gangnam, southern Seoul, is nearly one year old. The facility houses galleries and exhibitions about traditional alcohol and food.

Despite the success of several prominent companies, Korean traditional food still has a long way to go in order to raise its profile with the general public. While kimchi and various pastes remain firm favorites, there is very little market for anything else.

The first barrier to overcome is the low recognition. A recent government report showed that 63.9 percent of the general public said they like Korean traditional food, but only 23.5 percent felt they knew much about it.

“Traditional food has many advantages but they face difficulty in competition with imported foreign food,” said Baek Jin-seok, an official for the agricultural corporation’s food exports department. “We need manufacturers to actively search for new breakthroughs by emphasizing good ingredients and applying an innovative [packaging] design.”

Some bring up the need for systematic support from the government as most companies in the sector are small or mid-sized.

“Exhibitions and inviting buyers are good but what’s important nowadays is marketing using social media networks,” said Doctor Asahan’s CEO Nam. “There is a desperate need for support to develop online content that could be applied to YouTube or Instagram, or help companies enter major e-commerce platforms.”

BY JANG WON-SEOK AND SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]