Kimchi - for health and beauty
Kimchi brings both health and beauty, according to devotees trying to promote South Korea's most famous food -- a pickled and fermented vegetable dish -- to the wider world.
"You know why there are so many beautiful women in Korea and Korean women have such smooth skin? It's because they have been grown on kimchi," claims Kim Sung-Hoon, who chairs an upcoming Gwangju Kimchi Festival.
"If you want to age gracefully and have beautiful skin, eat Korean kimchi," said Kim, a former agriculture minister.
Such assertions are not new given kimchi's iconic status -- it has its own museum in Seoul and was blasted into space with the country's first astronaut in 2008.
There have even been claims, unsupported by scientific evidence, that it can ward off bird flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
But some experts agree that substances in the side dish, which is eaten with just about every meal, may delay skin ageing.
"I would like to say to foreigners: eat Korean kimchi a lot," said Professor Song Yeong-Ok of the Kimchi Research Institute at Busan National University.
Lactic acid bacteria and plant chemicals may help retard skin ageing and reduce cholesterol levels, she said.
Kimchi is made from various fermented vegetables including cabbage, radishes and cucumbers.
"The calorie content is very low and it's full of fibre and vitamins," Song told AFP at a recent promotion attended by European diplomats for this autumn's festival.
Jean-Philippe Baudrey, a senior official with the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea, needs no persuading.
"I love kimchi, especially Mool kimchi," he said, referring to a variety made of radishes and cabbage fermented in salty water.
"Kimchi with steamed rice, some mackerel and eggs are a perfect match. You can eat this for breakfast, lunch or dinner," he said. "Kimchi is also a good appetiser."
It's also an ideal accompaniment for the country's spirit drink, Baudrey said. "Tofu Kimchi (bean curd and sauteed kimchi) matches very well with soju."
Baudrey said his favourite kimchi comes from the southwestern provinces of North and South Jeolla, where Gwangju city is located. He praised its "deeper" taste and softer texture.
Gwangju festival chairman Kim said the region's favourable weather, fertile soil, sun-dried sea salt, fermented anchovy and other sea food combine to produce the nation's best variety.
Gwangju has staged the festival since 1994. This year's event is set for October 23-November 1 under the slogan of "Say kimchi" -- a Korean version of Western photographers' traditional request to "Say cheese."
The event will feature a kimchi-making contest, a conference on the dish, cultural performances, do-it-yourself kimchi lessons -- and buffets featuring kimchi.
It is scheduled to attract the country's best creators of the dish as well as fermented food makers from overseas.
"I believe the festival will help globalise kimchi and Korean cuisine," said Gwangju mayor Park Kwang-Tae.
There are scores of regional varieties but most often kimchi is made of cabbage, soaked in salt water to soften it.
It is then rinsed with fresh water and mixed with other ingredients including powdered chili, salt, garlic, ginger, spring onion -- and in the case of Jeolla kimchi, anchovy preserve and pear juice.
Fermentation lasts a few days or a few years, depending on individual taste.
"Some of my friends don't like it because of its smell and strong taste," Baudrey said. "It's like cheese. Cheese smells bad but the taste is good."
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