Korean kimchi
Korean kimchi

South Korea's government is taking steps to relieve a shortage of the Korean staple side dish, kimchi. Soaring vegetable prices, which in some cases have quadrupled in a month, have led to a dearth of the main ingredients of the fermented food. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Seoul reports.

South Korea's government announced Friday a temporary lifting of tariffs on Chinese cabbages and radishes. The Agriculture Ministry says about 100 tons of Napa cabbage will be imported from China next month to help overcome a kimchi shortage.

South Korea had a 30 percent import duty in place on the Chinese vegetables, which are primarily used to make kimchi. The spicy fermented dish is the most famous and ubiquitous of Korean traditional foods, served at nearly every meal.

Staple food

Some consumers, such as Seoul housewife Choi Eun-Ja, are cautious about relying on imported cabbage for the Korean staple food.

Choi questions whether cabbages from China are reliable. She says she prefers to buy domestic varieties, even if she has to purchase less due to the higher cost.

But Kim Hyun-Jung is more flexible.

Kim says whether they are from China or Korea, the cabbages grow in the same soil. She says people should be more concerned about getting to the bottom of the mystery of why cabbages here hit a record-high price.

Weather blamed

Adverse weather on the Korean peninsula appears partly to blame.  Unusually cold temperatures in the spring reduced the harvest. The situation worsened in the summer with a heat wave and heavy rains affecting the premium cabbages, which thrive in steady and cool weather in mountainous regions.

Many South Korean farmers say they gave up planting cabbages and radishes this year because growing them was not profitable last year, when there was a bumper crop.

At traditional Korean eateries, such as the Shinseol ox bone soup restaurant near Seoul City Hall, owner Cheon Hyeon Sook says the shortage is affecting business.

The restaurant operator says kimchi has become more expensive to serve than even the restaurant's specialty main dish.

Even pre-packaged kimchi, made before cabbage prices rose, is now scarce, selling out as soon as it is re-stocked on store shelves.

Under control

South Korean food officials vow they will get prices under control.  They are also targeting illegal profiteering by those hoarding cabbage.

The pressure is on the government because November marks the start of the traditional period to prepare home-made kimchi.

The Yonhap News Agency reports the shortage is being felt at the presidential official residence, the Blue House. President Lee Myung-bak is said to be eating kimchi made from European cabbage.