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For Sars-plagued Asia, Is the Answer Raw Garlic?

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SEOUL, South Korea _ While China, Taiwan and other Asian nations continue to battle SARS, South Korea remains free of the deadly disease. Plenty of superstitious Koreans think the secret of their immunity is right in front of them: a garlicky national dish called "kimchi," served with almost every meal.

As SARS has swept the region in recent months, anxious Asians have rushed to buy kimchi along with scores of other folklore cures and supposed preventatives, which include invoking fortune-tellers and eating fish heads.

But when it comes to kimchi _ a mixture of garlic, pickled cabbage, peppers and other ingredients _ at least one government researcher says the superstition just might be valid. It may be no coincidence that severe acute respiratory syndrome has not reached South Korea, where kimchi is a staple for a population of 48 million, according to researcher Hong Jong-woon of South Korea's Rural Development Administration.

Considering that Koreans travel extensively to China and Taiwan, Hong studied the Korean diet as a factor in prevention.

"When I was researching SARS, I learned that it is very similar to the flu. Then I remembered garlic's antiviral function," Hong said.

Garlic, kimchi's main ingredient, has long been recognized throughout the world for its potential health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and killing harmful bacteria and viruses.

South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare dismisses the connection as mere superstition. Health officials attribute the lack of SARS to Koreans' overreaction to the epidemic by avoiding travel.

George Slama, representative of the World Health Organization in Seoul, conceded that kimchi, a rich source of vitamins, is healthy, but people should not rely on it to prevent catching SARS.

But Kim Man-jo, a microbiologist and South Korea's leading expert on kimchi, agrees that the snack could possibly ward off SARS.

"This hasn't been tested in a laboratory, yet. But I think researchers will test it in the near future," Kim said.

In Korea, spicy kimchi is so common it is even served at breakfast. In Seoul restaurants, it often seasons hamburgers and hot dogs. Koreans eat about 3 ounces of kimchi a day. Per person, Koreans consume more garlic than anyone else _ 22 pounds a year.

"Garlic may give you bad breath, but a bad smell is better than bad health," Hong said.

Allicin, the component in garlic responsible for its pungent smell, interacts with the body's proteins and carbohydrates, researchers believe, working like a disinfectant.

"But garlic loses its antiviral effect if it is cooked," Hong said. Most Chinese dishes containing garlic fry the ingredient. Kimchi, instead, contains raw garlic. The dish is smothered in spices and masked with fish sauce, salt and chili peppers to balance the taste. It ferments, often underground, for eight weeks.

"Information is piling on based on scientific observations," said Hong, who hopes to win over his critics.

Meanwhile, sales of kimchi are soaring throughout Asia, propelled in part by coverage in the the Chinese media. There are more than 600 kimchi producers in South Korea and some are reporting a 40 percent increase in sales since January.

As of Monday, 8,460 people have been infected worldwide with SARS _ mostly in China, Taiwain, Singapore and Canada _ resulting in 799 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

The SARS scare aside, kimchi is coming to America. Leading U.S. grocers are teaming up with Koreans to produce kimchi in New Jersey and start a marketing campaign to introduce the dish's broad appeal.

Kim Man-jo recommends pairing kimchi with steak as it aids digestion.

"It's not medicine, it's not an herb, but it's a health food," she said.

(Andrew Petty is a freelance journalist living in Seoul. He wrote this article for Cox Newspapers).


Cox News Service

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