Starship Kimchi: Korea’s National Dish Is Ready for Space Flight


The first Korean astronaut will carry a special version of his national dish into space.

Published: February 24, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea – After South Korea began sending soldiers to fight beside American forces in Vietnam, President Park Chung-hee made an unusual plea. He wrote to President Lyndon Johnson to say that his troops were miserable, desperate for kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish that Koreans savor with almost every meal.

Chung Il-kwon, then the prime minister, delivered the letter to Washington. When he traveled overseas, he told Johnson, he longed for kimchi more than for his wife. The president acquiesced, financing the delivery of canned kimchi to the battlefield.

Now kimchi is set to conquer the final frontier: space.

When South Korea’s first astronaut, Ko San, blasts off April 8 aboard a Russian spaceship bound for the International Space Station, kimchi will be on board.

Three top government research institutes spent millions of dollars and several years perfecting a version of kimchi that would not turn dangerous when exposed to cosmic rays or other forms of radiation and would not put off non-Korean astronauts with its pungent smell.

Their so-called space kimchi won approval this month from Russian authorities.

“This will greatly help my mission,” Mr. Ko, a 30-year-old computer science engineer who is training in Russia, said in a statement transmitted through the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. “When you’re working in space-like conditions and aren’t feeling too well, you miss Korean food.”

Kimchi has been a staple of Koreans’ diets for centuries. These days, South Koreans consume 1.5 metric tons a year. Until recently, homemakers would prepare the dish by early winter, then bury the ingredients underground in huge clay pots. Now, many buy their kimchi at the store and keep it in special kimchi refrigerators, which help regulate the fermentation process.

It is hard to overstate kimchi’s importance to South Koreans, not just as a mainstay of their diet, but as a cultural touchstone. As with other peoples attached to their own national foods, South Koreans define themselves somewhat by the dish, which is most commonly made with cabbage and other vegetables and a variety of seasonings, including red chili peppers.

Many of them say their fast-paced lives, which helped build their country’s economy into one of the biggest in the world in a matter of decades, owe much to the invigorating qualities of kimchi. Some take a kind of macho pleasure watching novices’ eyes water when the red chili makes contact with their throats the first time. And when Korean photographers try to organize the people they wish to take pictures of, they yell, “Kimchiiii.”

The developers of the “space kimchi,” meanwhile, say their research will continue to benefit South Korea in a practical way even after the country’s national pride is burnished by Mr. Ko’s historic mission.

“During our research, we found a way to slow down the fermentation of kimchi for a month so that it can be shipped around the world at less cost,” Mr. Lee said. “This will help globalize kimchi.”

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