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26 April 2008

The Bold Taste of Kimchi Blasted into Orbit

I bet you didn’t know that South Koreans were dancing in the streets after one of their own became the first Korean astronaut in early April. Yi So-Yeon blasted into space aboard a Russian Soyuz spaceship bound for the International Space Station. While in space, Yi will be eating plenty of kimchi.

Kimchi? Most Westerners have never heard of this type of fermented cabbage, which has been a staple of the Korean diet for centuries. The South Koreans, who eat 1.6 tons of this side dish each year, like to spice up their banchan with other vegetables like onions, garlic, and red hot chili peppers. It’s the spicy peppers that have gotten me when I’ve tried kimchi because I’m not a spicy-food kind of guy. I prefer the less-spicy sauerkraut, but kimchi is definitely one of the healthiest foods you can eat. And it’ll clear your sinuses in a hurry.

Low in calories, high in dietary fiber, kimchi is rich in vitamin A, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), calcium, and iron and is an excellent resource for lactic acid bacteria that aids in digestion. Kimchi, along with sauerkraut, are prime examples of fermented foods that rarely find their way onto American plates. About the only non-dairy fermented foods that Americans eat these days are pickles.

The first time I ate kimchi was after my health troubles in the mid-1990s. I was living with my parents, and they liked to try new, exotic foods, so I gave it a go, but like I said, it’s too spicy for my taste. Another Korean dish I didn’t particularly care for was fish eyeballs. I attended a conference on probiotics one time, and the person putting on the conference—a Korean—planned the banquet menu for the conferees. We were served a traditional Korean meal including a dish with fish eyeballs. All I can remember is that they were all white—and you couldn’t see any sort of pupil.

I prefer food without eyeballs, and even though I’m not a big kimchi fan, I still seek out some type of fermented cabbage regularly, like sauerkraut. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors fermented their foods—a process that made the food healthier and easier to digest, as opposed to today’s preservatives, which rely on chemical compounds to keep the food from spoiling.

So, if you’re feeling adventurous the next time you’re in an Asian restaurant, skip the fish eyeballs but ask your wait person if they serve kimchi as a side dish. You may have a greater affinity for the spicy food than I do, and if so, you’ve discovered an incredibly healthy food to eat.

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