South Korea is struggling to secure its supply of kimchi - the spicy, pickled food that serves as the national dish - after an unusually long stretch of bad weather nearly halved the latest crop of Napa cabbage, the recipe's main ingredient.
Seeking an immediate substitute, the government reduced tariffs on Chinese-imported cabbage and other produce this week, part of a plan to rush an additional 100 tonnes of the staple into supermarkets and stores during October as prices soared.
while, the Seoul city government is providing the busiest markets with 300,000 heads of Napa cabbage at just 70 per cent of the market price - enough to feed 10,000 households.
Kimchi, made of cabbage fermented in white radish, garlic and chilli paste seasoning, is low in calories and rich in vitamins. It is so ubiquitous in South Korea that it is provided as a free side dish in all restaurants from steakhouses to pizzerias.
At the Woorim market in north-eastern Seoul yesterday, hundreds of people lined up hours before the sale of subsidised cabbage. Some scuffled trying to get ahead in line.
One man was arrested on Sunday for allegedly stealing ten head of cabbage from a field in the northeastern Gangwon province, local police said.
"I could see why he did it," Kim Chang-wan, a Seoul businessman, said of the alleged theft. "I have to get my kimchi fix with every meal or I'm not completely satiated."
Concerned market sellers and produce distributors are hoping that Koreans can ride out the kimchi crisis by eating other varieties of kimchi, like radish or green onion, as a substitute for the most common and popular Napa cabbage kimchi.
A combination of cold spring temperatures, a summer heatwave and torrential rains last month caused crops to fail and produced a surge in food prices that pushed the country's inflation rate to a 17-month high in September.
The price of one head of cabbage soared to the equivalent of about £5 at markets and grocery stores this week, up more than six fold from last year.
South Koreans consume about 1.45 million tonnes of kimchi a year, said Lee Jeong-sik, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
The mouth-scorching dish can be readily bought in stores, though many people make it at home - a laborious process as it must be stored and fermented during the winter months