Taste of green: Nokcha 녹차 and Ssuk 쑥

Matcha icecream on matcha frappucino next to matcha cake. Photographed in Gyeongju 2018.

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💚 Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen! 💚
Isn’t green food fascinating?

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 manages to bewitch matcha enthusiasts all over the world. 🍵🧙‍♂️

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 mugwort (Artemisia princeps), whose Korean name is ssuk (쑥). 🌲🧚‍♀️ 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 be chewed. Nevertheless, you can encounter many food items flavored and colored with mugwort throughout the year: Rice cakes, bakery products, latte 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 – especially beneficial to women. 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 is a common 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 also exists in Europe. 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. 🙂

In conclusion, Korean cuisine exhibits a wide arrange of natural food colorants. 🌶🎃🌿🍵🍠🍓 But beside color, they also endow the food with their specific aroma, which may be appealing to some but repulsive to others.

In the given cases of green tea and mugwort, for example, many children dislike them for 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 well-being. 🤒💊 (Comparable perhaps to Westerners drinking herbal teas from chamomile or fennel.) Other people, however, enjoy the distinct aroma and choose it over plain options.

Gelato with green tea flavor (left) and mugwort flavor topped with roasted soy powder (right) at Scooper Gelato (스쿠퍼젤라또) in Seoul, August 2019.

Either way, I urge you to be brave and at least give it 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 a future post!]

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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.

**) 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.

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Alcohol and food

Black beer served with cinnamon on the rim alongside cheese pizza inside a Western-style pub.

In Korea, drinking plays an important social role.🍻 When meeting people in the evening, people often enjoy their food alongside alcoholic drinks. Koreans are respectful if you do not drink alcohol – but it will definitely influence the scope of your social activities. (Actually, people will initially expect you to not be fond of drinking at all, since you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.)

In terms with this, anju (안주) are a characteristic trait of Korean culture. This is a category of foods which are specifically made to accompany alcohol. They range from simple peanuts and fried potatoes to more complex dishes such as savory pancakes, raw fish or all kinds of meat barbecues.

There are also classical combinations of specific types of drinks with certain dishes. For example:

  • you will find 🍴Western-style foods such as 🍗fried chicken, 🍟french fries, 🍕pizza or sausages on the menu of bars that serve 🍺beer (maekju 맥주).
  • Grilled 🥩meat or 🐟fish are often paired with Korean 🍶soju (소주).
  • 🥢Traditional food served with 🥛Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) are savory pancakes, of which many variations (vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, you name it!) exist. Especially on a rainy day, Koreans express a craving for these pancakes.

What can you eat when going out? Be aware that not every bar or Korean pub (suljip 술집) offers a dish that is vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher. There are a number of options, however, depending on the kind of location you go to. Here are some ideas:

Cheese platter in a Western-style pub
  • 🍺 Western style pubs aka Hof (호프): 🥜peanuts (땅콩), 🥨salted pretzels, 🍿Korean popcorn or other puffed grains (ppeongtwigi 뻥튀기), 🍟fried potatoes (gamja twigim 감자튀김), 🥗salad (샐러드), 🍕pizza (피자), 🧀cheese (치즈)
  • 🍶 Barbecues for beef or pork: 🥚egg stew (gyeran jjim 계란찜), 🍳rolled omelette (gyeran mari 계란말이; sometimes with 🥓ham or sausage), 🍜 mixed buckwheat noodles (bibim naengmyeon 비빔냉면; often served with 🥚egg and 🐄beef broth; noodles may contain 🐚 sea shell powder)
  • 🥛 Korean pubs with traditional food: 🥔potato pancake (gamja jeon 감자전), acorn jelly salad (dotori muk muchim 도토리묵 무침), leek 🥞pancake (pa jeon 파전), garlic chive 🥞pancake (buchu jeon 부추전), mung bean 🥞pancake (bindaeddeok 빈대떡 / nokdujeon 녹두전 绿豆煎), tofu with kimchi (dubu kimchi 두부김치 – kimchi normally contains 🐟fish sauce)
Outdoor food stall with various savory pancakes (buchimgae 부침개 / jeon 전).

Be aware that recipes vary by family and each place will have their own version of the respective dish. You might want to confirm prior to ordering, whether any 🥩meat, 🐟fish or 🐚seafood goes into your serving.

Additionally, especially in the case of eating from an outdoor food stall, dishes may be prepared on the same grill. Just thought I’d mention this in case of allergies or personal preferences. After all, it is up to you to decide whether you eat under these conditions or not. Anyways, hope you enjoy your night out! Cheers! 🍾😊