Feb 25, 2008  •  In Geek, Korean

Starship Kimchi

An article in today’s NYTimes caught my eye:

Starship Kimchi: A Bold Taste Goes Where It Has Never Gone Before

Ko San, the first Korean astronaut, blasts off into space onto the ISS on April 8, and he will be bringing a hefty supply of kimchi.

While bringing a cherished food on a long journey might seem like a simple act, taking kimchi into space required millions of dollars in research and years of work.

“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 project in 2003 with samples of kimchi provided by his mother.

Ordinary kimchi is teeming with microbes, like lactic acid bacteria, which help fermentation. On Earth they are harmless, but scientists feared they could turn dangerous in space if cosmic rays and other radiation cause them to mutate.

Another problem was that kimchi has a short shelf life, especially when temperatures fluctuate rapidly, as they sometimes 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,” Mr. Lee said.

He said his team found a way to kill the bacteria with radiation while retaining most of the original taste.

Kim Sung-soo, a Korea Food Research Institute scientist who also worked on “space kimchi,” said another challenge was reducing the strong smell, which can cause non-Koreans to blanch. He said researchers were able to reduce the smell by “one-third or by half,” according to tests conducted by local food companies.

As a Korean I’m all for the proliferation of kimchi. Kimchi should be served at all restaurants. In fact, one of my favorite pizza toppings is kimchi (I’m 100% serious here – the next time you’re having a plain cheese pizza, slap some kimchi on top of that bad boy. It’s an epicurean delight.)

However, spending millions and dedicating years of research? I’m not so sure about that. Couldn’t the time and resources be spent elsewhere?

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