In 1988, organizers of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, found themselves facing a conundrum: How would foreigners react to the country’s kimchi consumption? At the time, kimchi—the garlicky fermented side dish that has been a staple in Korean cuisine for centuries—was relatively unknown to the majority of westerners. Some organizers feared that its strong odor would turn off visitors and might even generate bad press for the country. But in reality the exact opposite happened, and soon people around the globe were lining up to take a bite out of Korea’s national dish.
“Kimchi became an important topic of much conversation during the 1988 Olympics,” Dr. Park Chae-lin of the World Institute of Kimchi, a national research institution focused on all things kimchi, tells Smithsonian.com. “In the past, South Korea was a small country in Asia that was not widely known around the world. The Olympic Games gave a good opportunity to present it to the world, and to enable kimchi to be accepted by people outside [of the country].”
But in order to do so, Olympic officials felt they had to strategize ways to make the dish approachable—and palatable—to foreign tastes. Officials included kimchi as one of the official foods of the 1988 Olympic Village, but with some hesitation. The Los Angeles Times reported that organizers were so worried, they even gave event staff who worked face-to-face with foreigners special instructions to brush their teeth after they ate kimchi, so as not to offend people with the smell.
Not surprisingly, some of the first visitors to give kimchi a try were athletes, and the media quickly picked up on their experiences with publications like The New York Times covering this interesting new foodstuff with the same level of detail as it did the athletic competitions that were taking place.
After the Olympics, interest in kimchi skyrocketed, boosting exports of the fermented food, particularly to Japan. And according to Chae-lin, interest in kimchi spread not only among foreigners but also within the Korean population at large. In the years after the Korean War, Chae-lin explained, “[Some] Koreans made efforts to move away from traditional diets, including kimchi, which they felt symbolized their deprivation in the past.”
“For Koreans who went through the 1950s and ’60s, not to mention those who lived before that in the years ahead of the country’s liberation from the Japanese colonial rule, kimchi was no less than a main staple that sustained their lives along with rice,” Chae-lin says. “[But after the war], shameful experiences associated with kimchi were often shared by overseas Koreans. It was said that many of them removed kimchi, which used to be the lifeline of the Korean people, from their houses due to the unpleasant experiences of being shunned because of its smell. For these reasons, kimchi was considered an old-fashioned food in Korea at the time.”
Fast-forward to today and kimchi can be found everywhere from award-winning food trucks serving homemade recipes, to kimchi-topped burgers, to big box stores selling it in bulk. Whole Foods carries as many as 163 kimchi products, marketing the food both for its taste and health benefits.
“In traditional medicine, kimchi is known to be a perfect food in which yin and yang are harmonized,” Na Kyungin, a curator for the Museum Kimchikan, a museum that promotes kimchi and the culture of kimjang (the process of preparing and preserving the dish), tells Smithsonian.com. The probiotics found in kimchi, Kyungin explains, have been associated with benefits including intestinal regulation and the prevention of obesity.
And with this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a new generation of people are embracing kimchi, many for the first time. To help educate them, the World Institute of Kimchi is holding a special exhibition at Gangneung Olympic Park called “Kimchi, Communicate with the World,” during the span of the games.
“If the Seoul Olympics offered an opportunity to introduce kimchi as a food, this year’s Pyeongchang Olympics is likely to enhance the understanding of Korean food culture,” Chae-lin says. “[We want to show people that] kimchi is not just a part of the Korean people’s food culture, but a food of communication and harmony created by combining ingredients from throughout the world and embracing various different food cultures.”