Putting a spring in your tableSome of the earliest signs of spring in Korea are culinary, visible in the many verdant dishes reappearing on the dinner table. The youngest wild leaves and buds become a source of dining delight. Traditionally in early spring, Koreans used to roam around the sunny countryside looking for delicacies poking from the fresh soil. Older Koreans still enjoy discovering their favorite greens while vacationing or traveling in the countryside. The wild plants and roots, commonly called namul in Korean, are available the entire year, but in the early part of the year they are often in short supply. So at this time of year they have a special term - bomnamul, or spring vegetables.
What makes the spring vegetables special is that they are the freshest and most tender young leaves and buds, rich in vitamins and minerals, and known to have special medicinal value to help improve general health. Every spring vegetable has its "right" time to be consumed. Once past that time, the texture, taste and nutritional values change. Many spring vegetables turn too tough or bitter, and become inedible.
A number of bomnamul varieties become available in markets and restaurants as early as February, notably sseumbagwi roots. This bitter and strongly flavored vegetable is usually parboiled and seasoned with vinegar and hot red chili pepper sauce. Ssuk, or mugwort, is another fragrant plant and it's served fresh or cooked.
Between March and April is the prime time for the most popular bomnamul: dallae, naeng-i, chwi, gosari, chamnamul, dolnamul and the like. They are all widely available in local supermarkets, but you can also find them in traditional markets such as Namdaemun or in most smaller open-air markets. During the bomnamul season, grandmothers who need extra pocket money sell their daily pickings for a great bargain. When shopping, look for the greens that feel tender and have a deep color.
Spring vegetables are at their best when served fresh or minimally cooked. You can toss fresh veggies into your regular green salad for seasonal zest, or try Korean style recipes. Traditionally, bomnamul is prepared with spicy and sour seasonings such as vinegar and red pepper sauce, similar to a salad dressing, to stimulate the flavor. For cooking, traditional namul seasonings include garlic and chives. These seasonings should be finely chopped and used minimally so they don't interfere with the vegetables' flavors. For best results, all namul should be tossed lightly and thoroughly with your fingers.
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Dureup are the young and tender buds from the Japanese angelica tree, which can be found scattered around Korea, Japan, China and the southern regions of Russia. These infant buds are one of most popular vegetables and are available from early spring until early summer. Their crunchy but soft texture and distinctive flavor make them the season's favorite. These buds are rich in protein and vitamin C, and are thought to stimulate the appetite and to help stave off diabetes and high blood pressure.
Cooking suggestion: Remove the hard shell and skin from the bud. Parboil the vegetables in salted water and rinse them in cold water. Serve with a dipping sauce. The sauce, chogojujang, is a creamy mixture of red chili pepper sauce (gochujang), vinegar, sugar and finely chopped garlic.
Dolnamul is the leaf of the star sedum, whose ability to grow in the field or indoors makes it a popular plant in homes. When served fresh, the young leaves picked in the springtime are believed to cleanse the blood. The leaves are light, crunchy and mild in taste and go well with various dressings.
Cooking suggestion: Wash dolnamul in cold running water and drain. Sprinkle chogochujang sauce over the vegetable and mix lightly. Serve immediately. Koreans make kimchi out of dolnamul.
Chwi is the young leaf of the aster scaber (a plant without an English name, only the Latin). Chwinamul is a popular vegetable that can complement all Korean dishes. Chwinamul, high in vitamins A and B2, calcium and minerals, stimulates the appetite and blood circulation, and helps fight rheumatism and chronic headaches.
Cooking suggestion: Remove the hard stems and wash in running water. Drain. Parboil in salted water and drain. Rinse in cold water and remove water by squeezing with hands. In a mixing bowl, put chwinamul and add soy sauce, finely chopped garlic, chives and roasted sesame seeds, and marinate. Preheat the frying pan. Saute the seasoned vegetables in vegetable oil (or sesame oil) and soy sauce. Coat the vegetable with a few drops of sesame oil and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds. Put the hot vegetable in the freezer for about 20 minutes to cool down immediately (to maintain the vegetable's crisp texture).
Naeng-i, or shepherd's purse, is a familiar spring vegetable of the mustard family, which is high in vitamin A and C and fiber. Naeng-i is popularly believed to have medicinal values; a high dose of dried naeng-i powder is said to improve the eyesight. The spicy flavor of the vegetable is ideal for serving in fresh seasonings Korean-style or in soup.
Cooking suggestion: Wash naeng-i in tepid water and drain. Season the vegetable with Korean dressing, a mixture of soy sauce, hot red chili pepper sauce, roasted sesame seeds, finely chopped garlic or chive and sesame oil. Boil fish stock and add bean paste, or doinjang, on the medium flame. Add finely chopped garlic and add naeng-i. Serve immediately.
Sseumbagwi, or ixeris dentata nakai, belongs to the chrysanthemum family. The vegetable's bitter taste is known to stimulate appetites in the springtime. According to ancient Korean medical journals, sseumbagwi is good for skin allergies, coughs and lung infections.
Cooking suggestion: Parboil the vegetable and saute it with finely chopped garlic and sesame oil. To spice up bean paste soup, add fresh sseumbagwi when hot and serve immediately.
Gosari, or bracken, contains various minerals and vitamin B. The brown curly namul adds a chewy and rich texture to Korean classic dishes such as bibimbap, gujeolpan or jeongol (stew).
Cooking suggestion: Soak in cold water for about one hour to remove bitter taste. Saute in finely chopped garlic and sesame oil and serve as a banchan, or side dish.
by Inēs Cho