Nature’s bounty from the hillsFor centuries, the real sign of Korean spring has been the ubiquitous verdant hills and fields of budding leaves. The first weeks of spring in Korean mountains and fields offer a variety of edible herbs, which are not only nutritionally rich but can also add deliciously aromatic flavors to meals.
According to Korea’s ancient literature, these wild, edible plants are not categorized as yachae (vegetables), but as namul. Those extracted from the mountains and hills (“san” in Korean), such as chwi, dureup and gosari, are called sannamul, while those picked from fields (“deul” in Korean), such as dallae, dolminari and chamnamul, are termed deulnamul.
Historically, the quest for the freshest delicacies instilled competition among the more knowledgeable women, who spilled no secrets about their favorite treks and spots to find the most delicious namul of the season. Once picked and gathered in baskets, the namul were brought home, where the women spent hours weeding out and cutting off inedible parts.
The hectic pace of modern life leaves little time for lengthy, labor intensive food preparation. however, and namul are no longer part of most everyday meals. Many Korean restaurants have stopped offering namul dishes for the same reason.
Consumption of wild plants and roots has largely been replaced by greenhouse-raised namul, as well as vegetables of multinational origin. The recent fad promoting the importance of organic food and a healthful lifestyle has diverted Korean diners’ attention to a large supply of imported varieties of greens with names people rarely recognize, such as kale, mustard leaves, chicory, Swiss chard, endive and more.
So, has the tradition of enjoying the Korean wild greens died completely? At least among the septuagenarian grandmothers squatting along the roadside at a local open-air market, the tradition goes on.
The two elderly women selling vegetables and grains out of plastic bags and cardboard boxes inside the Flower Arcade near the Express Bus Terminal in southern Seoul don’t seem to exist at all in the eyes of iPod-listening teenagers or young adults clutching trendy shoulder bags. But to those who know that Korea’s real springtime has come to their table, the vendors can offer some good news: the new arrival of the week was dureup, the young and tender buds from the Japanese angelica tree.
Another type of plant one of the vendors suggests to a matronly Korean woman is aromatic chwi, the young leaf of the aster scaber (a plant without an English name, only the Latin). She also has a box of fresh dolnamul, the leaf of the star sedum, open for sale.
She’s vague, however, about whether all of the greens are really “wild.”
When asked where the vendors get their supply, she said, “From a big market out there.”
How disappointing. The women didn’t spend their afternoon picking and gathering sannamul but get their regular supply from a wholesale market.
The biggest place to find Korea’s best namul right now is the Gyeongdong Open-Air Market in northeastern Seoul, which specializes in herbal medicine and other wild delicacies, such as ginseng and mushrooms.
Row after row of stalls run by elderly women lined the roadside there last weekend, offering sannamul. A handwritten note read “jayeonsan,” indicating the namul was wild, rather than cultivated.
I was in search of, among other things, one of the rarest and best-tasting sannamul called honnip, the newly budding leaves of the winged spindle tree (euonymus alatus) found in Gangwon province. The winged spindle trees’ fruit is said to have a medicinal effect, helping to cure diabetes and high blood pressure. The leaves, dried in the shade, are brewed to be served as a green tea, which reputedly helps blood circulation.
The light green leaves, picked at the most delicate budding stage of the tree’s life cycle, might take a long time to clean and prepare, but they have the flavor of aromatic, top-grade green tea leaves that leaves a mildly sweet aftertaste. And being available less than two weeks a year makes this a highly sought-after namul among epicures in Korea.
I asked one elderly woman selling about five different wild plants in small baskets: “Where can I find honnip namul?”
She immediately became annoyed because she didn’t have any, but waved her hand and said, “You have to go way in there!”
After passing about six more vendors selling everything from namul to dried sea kelp, garlic and salted fish, I ended up in an indoor market where relatively younger women were selling assorted namul in large vats and plastic bags.
A merchant at Seongdong Sanghoe had a large plastic vat full of honnip namul, all fresh and green. In the traditional markets, the old weight measure, the geun, which is equivalent to 600 grams, is still used.
That amount of honnip namul, which fits into a small plastic bag, costs 3,000 won ($3). When I said I wanted three bags, the vendor, who gave her name only as Kim, scraped the vat and gave me all she had.
Ms. Kim had 13 other types of namul, all wild, picked from all over Korea, she said. The honnip, for example, came from Gapyeong in Gangwon province.
“You can get this [honnip] only this week or maybe next week,” she said. “Some days, we don’t even get it because it’s hard to pick honnip leaves out of the thorny branches, but it’s so delicate and so delicious, you know.”
A pile of very green and moist leaves intrigued me. She said it was called Ulleungdo chwi. “Then does it come from Ulleungdo island?” She said it came from Jeju island, instead.
Other namul, such as godeulbaegi, also known as sseumbagwi, (ixeris dentata nakai, belonging to the chrysanthemum family) came from a field in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi province, while others like meowi (butterbur, or petasites japanicus) came from the Chungcheong provinces. She even had fresh gosari, or bracken, which is sold pre-cooked in most stores.
Every namul cost 2,000 won to 3,000 won for 600 grams.
But the vendor was missing one important item that was sold almost everywhere in Korean markets, dureup.
I went to her adjacent store and bought some that was twice as large as the specimens I saw in Gangnam. I asked her why her dureup was pink, rather than the all-green and brown varieties seen elsewhere.
“The red dureup is the best. Just steam them and dip them in chogochujang (vinegared red chili pepper paste). They will taste really good, I’m sure,” the merchant said. The cost was 4,000 won for a bag full of gorgeous dureup stalks.
She also said there was top-grade dureup that costs 7,000 won, but it sells out the first thing in the morning.
The area, as it turned out, is known as Namul Sijang (market) and it sells namul exclusively all year round.
Ms. Kim said the sannamul season kicked off just last week, so the best time to eat namul is from now until Buddha’s Birthday in mid-May.
It is possible to savor spring’s bounty relatively easily. Parboil namul in a pot of salted water, drain and rinse in cold spring water. Or alternatively, put the cleaned namul in the microwave for around 30 seconds or more, depending on the amount. Be sure to remove any excess water. Then place the wilted greens in a heated frying pan, and saute lightly with chopped garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil.
Each namul dish, whether warm or cold, can be eaten alone, over a bowl of steamed rice with other side dishes, or mixed together, like bibimbap, along with a dollop of spicy red chili pepper paste. But, alas, a mountain of fresh sannamul, after cooking, is reduced to a dainty morsel.
While the sannamul season is short, other spring varieties, like gomchwi (ligularia fischeri) and ssuk (artemisia), will be around for another few weeks, and starting in June, the market will sell meowidae (butterbur’s stalk) and chamnamul (pimpinella brachycarpa), followed by naengi (shepherd’s purse), dallae (allium monanthum), doraji (bellflower roots) and more.
Except for ajukkari (ricinus communis), intensely fragrant wild green leaves that appear around Full Moon Day in the winter, Namul Market, according to Ms. Kim, will never cease to sell Korea’s delicious greens of all kinds, fresh, dried and precooked for namul lovers.
by Ines Cho