Taste of green: Nokcha 녹차 and Ssuk 쑥

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

                 🥦🥒🍏🥝🥗
💚 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 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 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. 🙂

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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Dessert of the rich and noble: Yakgwa 약과

Once upon a time, there was yakgwa, a noble and beloved treat, which contained the following basic ingredients:

  • white wheat flour
  • oil
  • honey

All of these ingredients used to be precious and expensive 💲, so for centuries, yakgwa was cherished mostly among the upper class and at court. Prior to the machinized age, producing white wheat flour involved a long process of removing the hulls and skin of wheat grains and then grinding the core into a fine powder. An effort which was not undergone for the normal man’s daily meal. On top of that, wheat was not as common as rice or other cereals. 🌾 Oil (especially sesame oil) as well as nuts and seeds were historically treasured for their nourishing powers. Honey, lastly, was not only appreciated for its sweet taste but also for the health benefits ascribed to it. 🍯 Occasionally, its dough was upgraded with exotic spices such as black pepper, ginger and cinnamon and decorated with expensive nuts and seeds.
With these ingredients, it was actually considered to possess medicinal properties. Hence one of its names is yakgwa (약과 藥菓), which can be translated as “medicine cookie”. 💊🍪

But today, yakgwa‘s image has drastically shifted:
As globalization has turned previously existing orders upside-down, so did also yakgwa not escape the influence of modern developments. Judging from contemporary tastes, this dessert is hardly sweet at all. One can taste a note of honey or syrup, but the level of sweetness is quite low in comparison to modern desserts such as milk chocolate, icecream or cupcakes. 🍦 Perhaps due to mass-production, honey is no essential ingredient anymore, so some store-bought yakgwa can be found as vegan versions. Also, yakgwa are now more prized, when they are “embellished” with additional rice flour instead of containing 100% wheat flour.

In fact, also its consumers have changed. Since most Koreans of the younger generation have grown up with foods that are automatically seasoned with sugar or corn syrup, they have a higher tolerance of sugar levels and prefer more intensely flavored desserts.
Beside the subtle sweetness, this confectionery bears only hints of ginger, pepper or cinnamon – if these spices are added at all. Hence, mostly elderly Koreans or people with an ‘old-fashioned’ taste are fans of this mild dessert. Also the consistency and fat content may not appeal to everyone as these deep fried treats are quite rich. Frankly speaking, due to its unexciting consistency and oiliness I was initially not very fond of yakgwa, but my interest is growing as I learn about its variations and historical background. After all, it seems that yakgwa is easily overlooked next to contemporary sweets, which are literally glistening in all sorts of colors of the rainbow, blasting attractive scents and intense flavors.

Veganized yakgwa, jujube tea and green tea latte at a Korean tea house
(Dahyang Mandang 다향만당 in Seoul)

In general, yakgwa is produced by mixing flour, oil, honey and optional spices into a crumbly paste. The dough is then pressed into molds or shaped by cutting it into pieces, which are then fried in oil. Finally, the fried ‘cookies’ are bathed in a syrup, so that they absorb the sweet liquid. The production process may be reminiscent of Arab culture’s baklava, but yakgwa are less sweet and have no sticky, syrupy sauce attached to it. After all, this dessert can be considered a type of confectionery, rather than a bakery product.
In general, there exist two main types of yakgwa today: The most common one, which is normally flower-shaped, has a soft and slightly chewy consistency and is referred to as chapssal yakgwa (참쌀약과) when it contains glutinous rice flour . 🌸 The other one is called Gaeseong yakgwa (개성약과) or alternatively mo yakgwa (모약과), when it has a square or rectangular shape. 🔲 This latter type of yakgwa has a more brittle consistency and consists of several layers of dough similar to millefeuille or pastries. 🥐

Yakgwa and other traditional sweets sold at a store producing rice cakes (tteok jip 떡집)

Where to find:
In regards with traditional customs, however, yakgwa still bears significance during holidays or (e.g. wedding, ancestral) ceremonies. Outside such special occasions, one can encounter it in daily life as well. However, this historical confectionary is rarely offered in modern coffee shops but in Korean tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통찻집), along with other traditional desserts and tea. Yakgwa are also sold individually or in boxes at supermarkets, snack stalls and the shops which produce rice cakes (tteok jip 떡집). While it used to be a luxurious dessert, it is now easily available and as affordable as regular snacks and sweets: One large piece costs around 1000 – 1500 KRW on average.

Sweet or snack: Tteok 떡

They are nutritious and originally vegan:
Korean rice cakes (tteok orddeok 떡)

Traditionally, they were consumed as sweet treats on holidays or special occasions. But nowadays, they are quite abundant in Korea – throughout the year and basically anywhere – in innumerable variations! Although the basic ingredient is normally rice, they come in all kinds of shapes and colors, with fillings, toppings, varying textures, steamed, pounded, fermented etc…

Rice cakes of the “songpyeon” (송편) variety, filled with sesame and sugar.

Korean food is often colorful and so are these rice cakes! 🌈 Ideally, they are dyed naturally by adding flavorful ingredients, such as

❤️red = red rice (honggukmi 홍국미)
🧡yell0w = sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박)
💚green with speckles = mugwort (ssuk 쑥)
💜purple = purple sweet potato (jeok goguma 적고구마)
💜purple with speckles = black rice (heungmi 흑미)
💕pink = cactus fruit (baeknyeoncho 백년초)

Fresh yeongyang ddeok (영양떡) left outside to cool down before being cut and wrapped individually.

There exist rice cakes in cuisines of various Asian countries – each exhibiting local characteristics. Regarding Korea, here is a rough overview listing the most common criteria to demonstrate the diversity of tteok / ddeok:

  • Type of main starch: short grain rice (mepssal 멥쌀), glutinous short grain rice (chapssal 찹쌀)
  • Additions to dough: mugwort (ssuk 쑥), red / black whole grain rice (honggukmi 홍국미 / heungmi 흑미), pumpkin, sweet potato
  • Filling: sugar with sesame seeds, red bean paste (pat anggeum 팥앙금), bean paste (kong anggeum 콩앙금); occasionally nuts or dried fruit are added
  • Topping: sesame seeds, nuts, gingko seeds, dried fruit, chestnuts, whole beans
  • Coating: roasted soy bean powder (kong garu 콩가루), mashed beans (kong gomul 콩고물), [honeyed] syrup with sesame seeds, jujube (daechu 대추), coconut or spongecake crumbs (kastera 카스테라)
  • Shape: hand-shaped, ball-shaped, cut into blocks, pressed into molds
  • Method of preparation: pounding steamed rice (➡️dense, chewy texture), sifting rice powder and then steaming it (➡️fluffy, powdery texture), fermenting rice batter and then steaming it (➡️slightly tart flavor, bubbles in dough)
Mugwort tteok filled with red bean paste and covered in roasted soy bean powder
콩고물쑥떡

In general, rice cakes will not taste as sweet as our contemporary Western desserts. Modern versions and especially the ones with (red) bean filling, however, can turn them into rather filling, rich and nutritious sugar bombs. 😋 If the filling or topping of the rice cake contains nuts beside beans, this adds further sources of energy! Curiously enough, there exists a modern kind of tteok that is coated in crumbs of sponge cake – this is an exception to the otherwise vegan food item. Also, there are varieties, which are not sweetened at all. You will find these plain rice cakes in Korean dishes such as tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or in the soup tteokguk (떡국). But more on this later, in a future post.

Where to find:
Normally, rice cakes can be found as a to-go snack packaged into plastic foil basically everywhere – in convenience stores, on markets, on the street, in the subway and of course at “rice cake houses” (tteok jip 떡집/ tteok bang 떡방), where they are produced on location. What’s better than enjoying fresh rice cakes, as long as they are still warm, soft and chewy? 😋

In Seoul, prices for the dessert/snack types of tteok lie between 2000 and 3000 KRW per package, but this varies by regional location, brand and quality of ingredients.

Plain white ddeok which has been roasted and garnished with honey, bean powder and almonds.

Other than this, you may find rice cakes served for dessert in traditional Korean restaurants (the fancier type of restaurant!), in traditional tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통 찻집) or at tteok cafes, which are nowadays increasing in Seoul. At such locations, rice cakes are occasionally served roasted and garnished with a drizzle of honey, condensed milk or a kind of syrup along with other toppings. You may also see them as the topping in other desserts such as bingsu (빙수), which is a shaved ice dessert.

Apart from this, please note that rice cakes taste best the day they are produced! In case you happen to buy fresh rice cakes in bulk (which is often cheaper, especially at traditional markets), be aware of the following facts:

  • If you leave them at room temperature, they might spoil until the next day.
  • If you put them into the fridge, they will harden and require heat to soften again.
  • If you decide to store them, it’s best to freeze them. Let them thaw slowly at room temperature, when you want to eat them. Just decide when you want to eat them and take them out of the freezer a few hours in advance.
  • If you want to soften hardened rice cakes quickly, you could do so using a microwave (❗️softens unevenly, so tteok needs to be turned frequently) or roasting them on a dry pan (❗️burns and melts suddenly!). Steaming them is another option. [Otherwise, I recommend letting them thaw naturally.]

Snack all over the place: Kimbab 김밥

Kimbab with vegetarian filling: omelette, cream cheese, candied nuts, cucumber, carrot, thistle root (u-eong 우엉), pickled radish.

Everyone knows Japanese 🍣sushi, right?

But did you know about the Korean equivalent Kimbab (김밥)? It’s basically rice (bab 밥) rolled up in a sheet of seaweed (gim 김), quite similar to the Japanese maki sushi. Only it has WAY MORE fillings!!!🤩 💕
Another difference is, that you don’t need to dip the pieces into a sauce, because the fillings are already seasoned. 

In Korea, Kimbab is consumed as a snack, small meal or as a starter. It can be found sold on the streets or in small restaurants (bunsikjeom 분식점). In those restaurants, you can normally choose among various types of fillings – ranging from Kimchi to fried pork cutlet or 🥩beef plus the standard vegetables!

The basic filling usually includes 🥕carrot, 🥬spinach, pickled radish, 🥒cucumber, 🥚egg, 🥓ham (haem 햄), 🐟fishcake (odeng 오뎅) and 🦀crab meat (gematsal 게맛살).
It is easy to customize your Kimbab order, when it is made on location. According to your preferences, you can ask for specific ingredients to be put into your roll of Kimbab. Here are some ideas to for doing so:

🥕 “김밥에 야채만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables into my Kimbab. 🥒
🥚 “김밥에 야채하고 계란만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables and egg into my Kimbab.🍳
🥓 “햄 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbab without ham. 🐷
🐟 “오뎅이나 게맛살 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbab without fishcake or crab meat. 🦀

Whether you get it on the street or in a restaurant, Kimbab is easily available to-go, when it is simply wrapped into aluminum foil. It is an abundant, nutritious, basic food just like the sandwich in the Western world. An ideal meal when in a 🚴‍♂rush, 🧗‍♂outdoors or on a ⛱pick-nick! You can eat it with your fingers, in case 🥢chopsticks are not available. There’s no need to carry an extra sauce container. In other words, it is the number one 🥡take-away meal!
In this regard, it has a completely different standing if you think about the fancy way Japanese sushi is served in the Western world!

Vegan Kimbab with tofu, beetroot, radish, perilla leaf (deulggaetnip 들깻잎), thistle root (u-eong 우엉) and brown rice.