Updated: February 28, 2021 7:11:00 am
Crash Landing on You is a wildly popular Korean drama on Netflix about Yoon Se-ri, a South Korean businesswoman, who gets blown into North Korea while paragliding. In episode two of the sixteen-part series, North Korean state security inspectors arrive at the home of Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok, who is hiding the South Korean in his village. They tear through his house, eventually yanking open the doors to his underground kimchi cellar. Among baskets of root vegetables and fermentation barrels is Yoon, terrified of the gun being pointed at her. Ri suddenly emerges and says to the inspector, “Put away the gun you’re pointing at my fiancée!” while the villagers swoon and gasp.
Crisp plots, high-quality production, and suspenseful, romantic scenes like this one explain the skyrocketing success of Korean dramas across the world. Netflix India reported in a blogpost that K-drama viewership increased by 370 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. India’s fascination with Korea has extended beyond K-dramas — the language-learning app Duolingo reported on their blog that Korean is the second-fastest growing language globally, with Korean learners in India growing at one of the fastest rates. Korean music also made a breakthrough on Spotify India in 2020, with K-pop band BTS being the only international act to make it to the Top Five most streamed artists.
With Korean entertainment, language, and music becoming increasingly mainstream in India, fans are looking to another cultural frontier — Korean cuisine. While Indian viewers watch Yoon scuttle into Ri’s kimchi cellar, they are experimenting in their own homes with kimchi, a staple dish of salted and fermented vegetables seasoned with gochugaru or chilli powder, spring onions, garlic and ginger.
While kimchi has been consumed in the Korean Peninsula for centuries, the global craze for the “superfood” – which is believed to have great health benefits – began around 2016-17. “Global food trends usually take 2-3 years to become mainstream in India,” says Jay Mota, Head of Innovation at Urban Platter, which sells over 900 plant-based gourmet food products sourced from all over the world.
“By the end of 2019, we were already seeing more interest in fermented foods, especially kimchi, picking up as Indians caught on to the global trend. And then when the pandemic happened, a confluence of factors catapulted kimchi sales higher and higher every month.” The factors Mota is referring to are the intensified Hallyu or “Korean wave” in India during the pandemic, people having more time to experiment with food, and a belief in kimchi’s immunity-boosting properties. “In April and May 2020 we didn’t have any kimchi available because our manufacturing unit was shut. But from June 2020 to February 2021, our sales have grown twofold every month,” Mota says, adding that Indians generally enjoy the sour, tangy and spicy flavour profile of kimchi when they first try it.
Jay predicts that it is just the beginning for fermented foods like kimchi in India. “People are just starting to understand the importance of gut health. Indians are learning that each fermented food boasts different strains of beneficial bacteria. Kimchi consumption is only going to increase in India, along with other fermented products like kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut. Kimchi, of course, has a cultural edge that other foods do not.”
Consumers becoming more educated about the benefits of fermented foods will inevitably change their relationship with local foods, too. “I foresee traditional Indian fermented foods being marketed differently in the coming years,” Mota says.
The popularity of kimchi in India today is best illustrated by the response to last month’s Know Your Kimchi contest organised by the Korean Cultural Centre India (KCCI) in New Delhi. The contest engaged more than a million people in two weeks across the centre’s social media channels, and received videos, photos, and art from all over India showcasing the kimchi-making process called kimjang. The winner of the contest was 21-year-old S Sirisha from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, a Korean culture enthusiast, who is learning the Korean language at the KCCI and started an Instagram page called @kdramanews to provide followers with updates and casting news about K-dramas. “Many young Indians are waiting for the day that K-pop bands come to India to perform and when kimchi is as common as pizza and pasta in India,” says Sirisha.
25-year-old Praise Malewadkar from Goa, a runner-up in the contest, says, “The food in K-dramas is so delicious that anyone watching will want to try it. K-dramas are a gateway to the cuisine and that’s how I became interested.” She also shed light on how kimchi is easily adapted to ingredients available in India: “Instead of Napa cabbage I used regular Indian cabbage and instead of Korean chilli flakes I used Kashmiri chilli powder. I wanted to show the viewers that anyone can make kimchi at home.”
Hwang Il-Yong, the director of the KCCI says that the pandemic was “revolutionary” for their online engagement. Along with online cooking contests, the KCCI has also organised virtual K-pop dance parties and cuisine webinars. Il-Yong said he is not surprised that ‘K-fever’ is gripping India. “It is just the beginning,” he said, for both Indian consumption of kimchi and wider exposure to Korean culture.
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