Taste of green: Nokcha 녹차 and Ssuk 쑥

Green tea frappuccino with ice cream and green tea cake. Gyeongju 2018.

💚 Greeeeeeeeeeeeeen! 💚

Isn’t green food fascinating?


Do you know what ingredients can turn other foods green? You may remember that spinach is added to e.g. pasta and bread, and recently even chlorella and spirulina have found their way into our (smoothie) bowls. Let’s find out which natural food colorants exist in contemporary Korean cuisine!

Green Tea Powder

Who does not know about green tea powder alias matcha* and its current use as an eye-catching addition to foods? It frequently appears in East Asian products, and by now, it is advancing globally into the spheres of innovative as well as health-conscious food production.

At first, the vibrant green may appear alarming to some 🤢, but the fascinating color and intricate bitter taste eventually manage to bewitch matcha enthusiasts all over the world. 🍵🧙‍♂️

Green tea bread with green tea filling. Seoul 2019.

But who knows the source of ⬇️this beautiful deep-green color? 👽

“Ssuk tarte” by patisserie Arari Ovene 아라리오브네 in Seoul 2017.


This, may I introduce, is thanks to Korean mugwort (Artemisia indica / Artemisia princeps),** called ssuk (쑥) in Korea. 🌲🧚‍♀️ Isn’t the color enchanting?

Ssuk is a native herb, which is rather important in Korean culture*** – most particularly in its cuisine featuring the characteristic ingredient in savory main dishes, desserts as well as beverages.🌿 In Korea, the plant, which grows like weed in nature, is consumed when its leaves are still young and soft. 🌱 Early spring is the only season it is harvested, so you will see foods featuring (fresh) mugwort on the seasonal menu of many cafes and restaurants during this period! The young seedlings grow quickly into a tall plant with leaves too stringy and hard to chew. Nevertheless, you can encounter many food items flavored and colored with mugwort throughout the year: Rice cakes, bakery products, milk drinks (aka “latte” 라떼) etc. Yet, in such cases, mugwort is used in dried form, most likely as a powder made from the young plants, which were harvested in spring, dried and then finely ground.

In cooking, baking and beverages, ssuk contributes its turquoise-green color (when used as powder) and additionally stringy texture (when used fresh) to the respective food item. Typical for ssuk is its distinct herbal scent, for which it is being cherished by most Koreans. When ssuk is eaten raw or in large amounts, however, its bitter taste may be perceived most prominently.

Dried mugwort leaves brewed into tea.

Furthermore, ssuk is ascribed positive effects on the health, in particular, women’s health. ♀️ To provide an example, in Korea, tea from dried mugwort leaves is supposed to strengthen and warm the body from the inside. [But since I am no expert in traditional herbal medicine, I do not feel qualified to explain this phenomenon.] In correspondence with its medicinal properties, mugwort is generally quite significant in Traditional Chinese Medicine: Moxibustion (in Korean ssuk-tteum 쑥뜸) may be a common example for the application of mugwort, which even people outside the East Asian culture sphere may have heard of already.

Mature mugwort growing on the side of the road in Germany.

In fact, mugwort exists all over the world. 🌎Common in Europe is the species of mugwort that is scientifically referred to as Artemisia vulgaris. In Germany🇩🇪, the herb is referred to as “Beifuß” and has traditionally been used as a spice – but here, the dried flowers of the adult plant are used! A famous German dish featuring dried mugwort flowers is the roasted goose prepared on Christmas ( “Gänsebraten mit Beifuß” or “Weihnachtsgans”). 🎅🎄

Perhaps, you happen to have grown up in a family that customarily uses this herb? Or are you familiar with this plant for some other reason? After all, it is possible that the two of you have already been acquainted! You just weren’t aware of it. 🙂

Other natural sources of green food color

Apart from green tea and mugwort, there are other plant-based ingredients that color food in Korea. Less frequent are mulberry leaves and bamboo leaves, which appear to be used locally as a food colorant. Bamboo, in particular, is a regional specialty of Damyang (담양), where finely ground bamboo leaves may be mixed into noodles or sweet snacks.**** Sometimes, even Korean garlic chives (buchu 부추) are ground up for noodles or pancakes. As an alternative to mugwort, some Korean rice cakes that are green contain young leaves of ramie, Boehmeria nivea (mosi 모시), or the thistle Synurus deltoides (surichwi 수리취).


In conclusion, Korean cuisine exhibits a wide range of natural food colorants. 🌶🎃🌿🍵🍠🍓 Besides dying food, they endow the food with their characteristic aroma, which may be appealing to some but repulsive to others. While each plant has a distinct flavor, common to most green food dyes is the typical “scent of green” which Koreans call putne (풋내).

In the case of green tea and mugwort, however, many children dislike their bitter taste. Mugwort’s strong herbal scent may also be associated with [bad childhood memories of] “healthy foods” that were forced down for the sake of health. 🤒💊 (Comparable perhaps to Westerners drinking herbal teas like chamomile and fennel.) Other people, however, enjoy the distinct aroma and choose it over plain options. [Me included! 🤚]

Gelato with green tea flavor (left) and mugwort flavor (right) at “Scooper Gelato” 스쿠퍼젤라또. Seoul, August 2019.

Either way, I urge you to be brave and at least give green food a try. It is best decide for yourself, whether you may grow to like it or whether you prefer the pure, mild taste of white rice and vanilla ice cream. 🍚🍦

There is so much to discover in Korea’s colorful and flavorful (and healthy) cuisine! ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜🖤 [More on other edible colors in future posts, e.g. about purple and black!]






Additional notes by the author:

*) Matcha is the Japanese reading of ‘抹茶‘ (ground tea), which is pronounced “mǒchá” in mandarin Chinese. The Korean reading of the same characters is malda (말다), but it is often referred to as malcha (말차) or simply called nokcha (녹차), which means green tea.

**) There are actually more than ten different species of mugwort recorded for Korea, e.g. Artemisia japonica, Artemisia annua, Artemisia argyi, Artemisia capillaris, Artemisia codonocephala, Artemisia keiskeana, Artemisia lancea, Artemisia montana, Artemisia rupibes.

***) In terms of culture, let me just briefly mention the “Tale of Danggun” (당군신화), one of Korea’s creation myths, in which the consumption of mugwort as well as garlic play a decisive role on how the narrative evolves.

****) At least during Damyang Bamboo Festival (담양 대나무 축제), you can find food flavored and colored with bamboo leaves and bamboo shoots.

  • alternative spellings: colour / colours / colouring / colourant / colourants
  • alternative names: food dye / food dyes / dyeing / wormwood / Camelia sinensis


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