Shortage of cabbage leaves Koreans in a fine pickle

Vegetables pickled in garlic, red chilli and fish paste may not be everyone's plat du jour, but kimchi is Korea's revered national dish, as ubiquitous as fish and chips in Britain.

So a shortage of napa, the cabbage that serves as the main ingredient, is causing a crisis. Heavy rain – and suspected hoarding – has sent the price of napa soaring from about 90p to more than £5 a head – an all-time high.

And that has forced some restaurants to do the unthinkable: charge for the privilege of eating it. "It's shocking to us that this could happen," says Kim Hyun-sook, a housewife from Seoul. "Being Korean means eating kimchi every day."

Having to pay for a side dish that usually comes free with virtually every meal in this nation of 49 million people has become a national sore point. President Lee Myung-bak has taken a break from dealing with the economy and Seoul's truculent Northern neighbour to discuss what has been called the great kimchi bailout. The result is that Koreans must swallow their pride and learn to love imported cabbage.

Mr Lee plans to slash tariffs and bring in 100 tonnes of the vegetable from China. Some Koreans want the government to do more, subsidising consumers and tackling hoarders. Consumption of the dish is intensely bound up with national identity. "I guess cabbages are grown in different soil in China," a housewife told the Korea Times. "I'm not sure those cabbages would suit our bodies."

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