By Choe Sang-Hun
SEOUL: Koreans say they must eat kimchi wherever they are. When South Korea
dispatched troops to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, tearful mothers sent
off their sons with clay pots containing homemade kimchi. Soon
troopships were filled with the pungent smell of the fermenting cabbage
slathered with pepper and garlic.
So it was only natural for Koreans to think that their first
astronaut must have the beloved national dish when he goes on his
historic space mission in April. Three top government research
institutes went to work. Their mission: to create “space kimchi.”
“If a Korean goes to space, kimchi must go there, too,” said Kim
Sung Soo, a Korea Food Research Institute scientist. “Without kimchi, Koreans feel flabby. Kimchi first came to our mind when we began
discussing what Korean food should go into space.”
Ko San, a 30-year-old computer science engineer who beat 36,000
contestants to become the first South Korean space traveler, will blast
off April 8 on board a Russian-made Soyuz rocket, together with two
Russian cosmonauts. He will stay in the International Space Station for
10 days conducting scientific experiments.
Ko’s trip will be an occasion for national celebration. Since 1961,
34 countries, including Vietnam, Mongolia and Afghanistan, have sent
more than 470 astronauts into space, but none of them was Korean –
something South Koreans have found humiliating, given their country’s
economic stature. So when their government finally decided to finance
Ko’s trip, they wanted him well prepared for his momentous journey.
Which means he must take kimchi with him.
After millions of dollars and years of research, South Korean
scientists successfully engineered kimchi and nine other Korean recipes
fit for space travel. When the Russian space authorities this month
approved them for Ko’s trip, the South Korean food companies that
participated in the research took out full-page newspaper ads.
The other space food Koreans created include the national instant
noodle called ramyeon, hot pepper paste, fermented soybean soup and
But kimchi – a must-have side dish at every Korean meal – was the toughest to turn into space food.
“The key was how to make a bacteria-free kimchi while retaining its
unique taste, color and texture,” said Lee Ju Woon at the Korean Atomic
Energy Research Institute, who began working on the newfangled kimchi
in 2003 with samples provided by his mother.
Ordinary kimchi is teeming with microbes, like lactic acid bacteria,
which help fermentation. On Earth they are harmless, but scientists
fear they could turn dangerous in space if cosmic rays cause them to
mutate. Another problem is that kimchi has a short shelf life,
especially when temperatures fluctuate rapidly, as they do in space.
“Imagine if a bag of kimchi starts fermenting and bubbling out of
control and bursts all over the sensitive equipment of the spaceship,”
Lee’s team found a way to kill the bacteria with radiation while
retaining 90 percent of the original taste. Lee’s space kimchi comes in
cans, whereas the Korea Food Research Institute’s version, developed by
Kim’s team using a different technology to control the fermentation
process, comes in a plastic package.
“This will greatly help my mission. When you’re working in
space-like conditions and aren’t feeling too well, you miss Korean
food,” Ko, who is training in Russia, said in a statement transmitted
through the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, which is overseeing his
mission. “Since I am taking kimchi with me, this will help cultural
exchanges in space.”
Ko plans to be host of a Korean dinner in the space station on April
12 to celebrate the 47th anniversary of the day the Soviet cosmonaut
Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The dinner will conclude
with Korean ginseng and green tea.
What about kimchi’s strong aroma, which often keeps non-Koreans from trying it?
“We managed to reduce the smell by one-third or by half,” Kim said.
“So the other astronauts will feel comfortable trying our space kimchi.”
Choi Gi Hyuk, head of the South Korean government’s Korea Astronaut
Program, said the low-calorie and vitamin-rich kimchi, and its
mouth-scorching punch, would prove excellent in space by “perking up
the appetite” of astronauts “tired of their bland menu.” So far, 150
dishes are available for astronauts, all developed by American and
South Koreans consume 1.6 million tons of kimchi a year, at
breakfast, lunch and dinner. Until recently, in a tradition similar to
an Amish barn raising, villagers joined to make kimchi each fall and
stored it underground in jars to last through the winter. Today, most
housewives buy kimchi in stores and keep it in an electronic “kimchi
Many South Koreans say their high-tempo lifestyle – which helped
build their country’s economy into one of the biggest in the world in a
few decades – owes much to the invigorating qualities of kimchi.
When posing for photographs, Koreans say, “Smile and say
‘Kimchiiii!’ ” And there is no doubt a link between kimchi and Korean
In 1967, President Park Chung Hee of South Korea sent a letter
telling President Lyndon Johnson that South Korean soldiers fighting in
Vietnam were miserable, missing kimchi. To make the point, Park’s
deputy, Prime Minister Chung Il Kwon, told Johnson during a visit to
the White House that when he traveled overseas, he longed for kimchi
more than his wife.
After the Americans agreed to finance the delivery of canned kimchi,
Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy reportedly quipped –
somewhat wishfully – that the Vietcong “would never be able to hold the
Koreans once it arrived.”
The developers of space kimchi said their research would help
overcome an obstacle that has daunted businessmen trying to expand
kimchi exports: the food’s short shelf life.
“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,” Lee said. “This will help globalize kimchi.”