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 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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Seasonal treat: Spring greens


🐦Birds are singing.🕊
🌸Flowers are blooming.🌼
🦋Insects are buzzing around.🐝
🌱New leaves are sprouting on plants.🌿

It’s basically screaming in your face:
🌤 SPRING IS HERE!!!! 🌷

How else can you tell?
🤤Fresh spring greens (bom namul 봄나물) are back!!💚

Dishes made from tofu and spring greens (pictured: dol namul, dureup, bangpung namul, dallae)

Traditional Korean food is characterized by turning seasonal and local ingredients into diverse healthy and flavorful dishes. In particular, the abundance of side dishes consisting mainly of 🥦vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🌿wild herbs is a wonderful aspect for vegans, vegetarians and vegetable-lovers! 🤤💚🥕 And now, as spring greens are in season, these are used to upgrade dishes with the special flavor of spring.🌱 Accordingly, you will notice how additional fresh greens are currently offered in grocery stores, on traditional markets, and in restaurants.

There exists quite a diversity of edible greens native to the Korean peninsula. Among the common ones, you will find:

  • ssuk (쑥) – the young leaves of Korean mugwort (Artemisia princeps) are harvested before the plant develops tough and stringy leaves. Its aroma is so popular that it is frequently added to rice cakes, bakery and beverages (e.g. tea or ssuk latte 쑥라떼) all year round
  • chwi namul (취나물) – various species from the family Asteraceae, e.g. 참취 (Aster scaber), 곰취 (Ligularia fischeri), 미역취 (Solidago japonica)
  • cham namul (참나물) – Pimpinella brachycarpa
    bangpung namul (방풍나물) – edible leaves of a plant which belongs to the same botanical family as carrot, parsnip and parsley
  • sebal namul (세발나물) – the fine thread-like leaves of this plant are edible raw as well as briefly blanched.
  • dol namul (돌나물 石上菜) – Sedum samentosum
  • dureup (두릅) – newly sprouted leaves of the tree Aralia elata, which are edible after cooking and thus softening the shoot’s stings.
  • dallae (달래) – Allium monanthum is a kind of small spring onion
  • sseumbagwi (씀바귀) – roots from a plant scientifically called Ixeridium dentatum. As the name implies, these roots are quite bitter and are reminiscent of dandelion.

Prices for these greens vary by type, but they are generally quite affordable – often decisively cheaper than common vegetables from Western cuisines such as spinach, lettuce or cabbage! Normally you can buy a package (supermarket) or a ‘shovel full of greens’ (traditional market) for something between 1000 KRW and 3000 KRW.

Side dishes made from sebal namul, sseumbagwi and dol namul

If you wonder how these are eaten, recipes for spring greens are innumerable! In general, most of them can be turned into simple vegetable side dishes by blanching them in lightly salted water and then seasoning them according to personal liking. In addition to that, some can be eaten raw in combination with a flavorful dressing – sebal namul and dol namul for instance. Other ideas are to add them to stews, make savory pancakes or use them as a topping in a bowl of mixed rice (Bibimbab 비빔밥).

During the rest of the year, you may encounter some of these greens in dried form as well. However, the texture, flavor and aroma differ decisively from the taste of the fresh plant. So don’t miss out on this opportunity and enjoy this spring treat as long as fresh greens are available over the next few weeks!

Happy experimenting and exploring the various flavors of these local vegetables! 😊