South Korea is struggling to secure its supply of kimchi — the spicy, pickled food that serves as the national dish — after an unusually long stretch of bad weather nearly halved the latest crop of Napa cabbage, its main ingredient.
Seeking an immediate substitute, the government reduced tariffs on Chinese-imported cabbage and other produce this week, part of a plan to rush an additional 100 tons of the staple into supermarkets and stores during October as prices soared.
The Seoul city government, meanwhile, is providing the busiest markets with 300,000 heads of Napa cabbage at just 70 percent of the market price — enough to feed 10,000 households.
Kimchi, made of cabbage fermented in white radish, garlic and chili paste seasoning, is low in calories and rich in vitamins. It is so ubiquitous in South Korea that it is provided as a free side dish in all local restaurants from steakhouses and Chinese restaurants to pizzerias.
At the Woorim market in northeastern Seoul, hundreds of people lined up Tuesday hours before the sale by the city government to get first grabs on the subsidized cabbage. Some scuffled trying to get ahead in line.
One man was arrested Sunday for allegedly stealing 10 heads of cabbage from a field in South Korea's northeastern Gangwon province, local police said.
"I could see why he did it," Kim Chang-wan, a Seoul businessman, said Monday of the alleged theft. "I have to get my kimchi fix with every meal or I'm not completely satiated," he said.
Concerned market sellers and produce distributors are hoping that Koreans can ride out the kimchi crisis by eating other varieties of kimchi like the radish or green onion kind as substitute for the most common and popular Napa cabbage kimchi.
This year a freakish combination of cold temperatures in the spring, an extreme heat wave in the summer and torrential rains in September, caused crops to fail and produced a surge in food prices that pushed the country's inflation rate to a 17-month high in September.
Napa cabbage harvests dropped 40 percent to 151,000 tons in the nine months through September, compared with 252,000 tons in the same period last year, due to "abnormal climate changes," the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says.
The price of one head of the cabbage soared to 10,000 won (about $8) this week at markets and grocery stores, up more than six fold from last year's 1,600 won and three times that of last month's 3,000 won.
South Koreans consume an estimated 1.45 million tons of kimchi a year, said Lee Jeong-sik, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Of that, 450,000 tons are made at factories, and the rest at homes or by restaurants.
The mouth-scorching dish can be readily bought in stores, though many people make it on their own at home — a laborious process that requires it to be stored and fermented during the winter months. Many homes have special kimchi refrigerators that regulate temperatures to maintain the preferred level of fermentation.
Ha Joon-tae, who owns a restaurant in downtown Seoul specializing in kimchi stew, said he is struggling to make ends meet as he can't raise the prices on his menu to match the skyrocketing price of cabbage.
"I'll need to almost double the prices on my menu to break even, but if I do that I won't have customers any more," Ha said. "But if I don't raise the prices, I won't have money to buy ingredients to cook with. It's a lose-lose situation."
Ko Si-soon, who sells ginseng — a traditional root used for medicinal and health purposes — said her restaurateur son started charging customers for refills of kimchi, a move she described as "abominable."
"I guess people always want what they can't have," Ko said while shopping at a local market. "My son started charging 1,000 won per refill, but that hasn't stopped customers from asking for more."
South Korea's Agriculture Ministry says while production will continue to drop this year, it expects prices to stabilize at 2,000 won per cabbage by November in time for "kimjang" season — the annual rite in the fall when kimchi is traditionally prepared and packed into giant pickling jars and buried in the ground to ferment during winter.
"I don't know how long I can keep ignoring my grandkids and my husband's demands for kimchi every meal," said Kim Hyung-sook, who lives in northern Seoul. "You're not Korean if you don't eat kimchi three times a day."