"And on Monday, the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, in which it is absorbing 30% of the cost of about 300,000 heads of cabbage it has purchased from rural farmers so it can be sold for less to consumers.
Depriving Koreans of their kimchi, many say, is like forcing Italians to forgo pasta or taking all the tea from China. The dish of fermented cabbage, radish and chile paste has such iconic status here that there is a museum dedicated to kimchi in Seoul, and portions of it were blasted into space with the country's first astronaut in 2008.
Served with virtually every meal, kimchi is believed by many to ward off aging, reduce cholesterol and fight disease. South Koreans together eat more than 2 million tons of it each year.
The shortage has raised tempers and led to intemperate political statements. When President Lee Myung-bak announced he would eat only kimchi made from what he said was cheaper round cabbage common in Europe and North America, many people erupted in anger.
The round cabbage, Internet users pointed out, was only slightly cheaper here than the Chinese variety, suggesting the president's claim was out of touch with the needs and concerns of the working class.
"For the president to say something like that is like Marie Antoinette saying, 'Let them eat cake!'" one blogger groused.
The shortages have come at the onset of gimjang season, when families lovingly hand-prepare the kimchi they will consume during the winter and spring. Many prefer kimchi that has fermented for months or even years in earthenware pots.
In a play on words, people now refer to kimchi as gold. (The two words are similar in Korean.) In restaurants, where customers wrap beef and pork in a slice of cabbage, they joke that the custom should be reversed, because the cabbage is now more costly than many meats."