Being a peninsula, Korean cuisine has many dishes relying on the sea’s bounty. It’s not only about fish and shellfish, however. Various sea vegetables are incorporated in a variety of dishes from simple banchan (side dishes) to whole meals centering on the vegetable itself. You can find them deeply sunken in seawater tubs in traditional markets, at the dried seafood store, or commercially prepackaged in supermarkets.
Sea vegetables are the most natural “health food” you could get; full of iron and minerals, they are known to be good for balancing body metabolism and ameliorating blood circulation. They are highly recommended in the spring, when sudden temperature changes confuse the body and after-meal drowsiness ferociously attacks.
Here’s a rundown of several sea vegetables you’ll see in Korean meals:
Gim is thin, paperlike sheets of dried sea laver. It’s the gim to the bap in gimbap (김밥), the essential Korean picnic food. The gim is used as the wrapper to hold rice and other ingredients into a roll.
Gim can also be roasted with a light touch of sesame oil and seasoned with a sprinkle of salt. Roasted gim is then cut into small portions to be eaten with rice as banchan.
Some people eat it separately, some pick the gim up with their rice-filled spoons, and others wrap the gim around rice with chopsticks for a tasty mouthful. I usually go for the last option.
Korean gim is known to have a very fine and delicate texture, without being brittle when roasted. The most fine gim is called “dol gim” (돌김), literally meaning “stone gim”, as the gim is collected from underwater rocks. Wild dol gim is traditionally from the island of Ulleung, where the seawaters are sparkling clean, providing a natural and ideal environment for gim to grow. These days, most of the dol gim is cultivated elsewhere and the term has become a generic term for all gim collected from rocks.
Individual serving portions of prepackaged roasted gim can easily be found in the supermarkets with many varieties available. Although sesame oil is traditionally used for roasting, you can also find perilla, sunflower, soy, and canola oil being used.
Full of protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, gim is also known to rid your body of fatty cholesterols and is easy on your stomach for smooth digestion.
Miyeok has been touted as health food from centuries ago; historical documents record that miyeok has been exported to China since the Goryeo Dynasty. Extremely high in potassium, calcium, and iodine, miyeok is known to clarify the bloodstream, improve the regulation of body temperature, and boost metabolism.
Because of these characteristics, miyeok guk (miyeok soup) is traditionally the first meal that a new mother eats after giving birth. It is also why Koreans eat miyeok guk on their birthdays. The miyeok guk consumed by the mother turns into milk for the baby, so eating miyeok guk is like remembering your first meal in the world.
“Did you eat miyeok guk today?” is a common question to ask on a birthday. It’s considered important to have someone like your mother who gives you unconditional love to make you a bowl of miyeok guk on that special day. For Korean birthdays, cake is an option, miyeok guk is a must.
Miyeok is used whole in soups, the soft leaves and the more solid stems are separated to make banchan; either on its own or with other vegetables, land or sea. Large leaves of fresh miyeok is also used as ssam (쌈), the vegetable wrapper used to eat grilled or barbequed meat
Have you ever wondered what that little square in the package of ramyeon was? Have you gaped at how big that square became after the ramyeon was made? Did you wonder whether to eat it or not?
Answers: A) It’s dashima, i.e. kelp or sea tangle. B) I certainly have. The longer it soaks, the bigger it gets. C) It’s totally your choice. I usually don’t.
Along with gim and miyeok, dashima is an extremely flexible vegetable that can be served in various different ways. It is mostly used to add flavor to stock, especially with fish or seafood based soups and stews, which is why it’s almost always added in seafood based ramyeons. It is also a staple in mu guk (무국, Korean white radish soup).
Like miyeok, dashima can be eaten as ssam after being lightly blanched. It is also fried crisp and seasoned to make a healthy snack; sliced thinly and boiled in seasoned ganjang to make banchan; it can also be added when making rice to add flavor.
Dashima provides calcium, potassium, iodine and is abundant in amino acids and fiber. It is recommended in the diet for preventing high blood pressure, diabetes, and thyroid problems.
Do you like green eggs and ham? When I was a kid the notion that green eggs may mean rotten eggs didn’t occur to me, so I didn’t quite understand why the main character in Dr. Seuss’s book was so opposed to the idea of green food. (I wondered if he didn’t like cucumbers, either.)
Parae’s name comes from the same roots as “green” and it’s likely the brightest green sea vegetable there is. It is most commonly served as banchan, either with a mixture of sesame oil and myeolchi jeot (salty fermented Korean anchovies), or with ganjang and vinegar for a tangy taste. Dried parae can be stir-fried and added to cooked rice; it is also used to make gim and is a good source for vitamins and minerals.
Green glop. Unfortunately, that’s what maesaengi looks like. And to be quite frank, I really can’t tell you what it actually tastes like. It doesn’t have a discerning taste other than “a mouthful of sea”, in a good way. It’s mostly the texture or color that plays the supporting role in dishes. Some people dislike the slippery texture; I find it soothing, it’s like eating juk (죽).
Maesaengi is high in iron, potassium, and protein, and is usually paired with oysters, in soup or jeon.
Steaming hot maesaengi gul guk bap (매생이 굴국밥, maesaengi oyster soup with rice):
Tot looks like a maritime version of a feather boa, something a mermaid might wear around her neck in an animated movie. Lightly blanched, it is usually served as banchan in a variety of recipes; it can be mixed with ganjang, doenjang, gochujang, or sesame oil with other vegetables. It can also be added when cooking rice to add flavor, color, and texture. The tiny bubble-like “leaves” pop in the mouth and make chewing quite interesting. Tot is full of calcium, iron, iodine, and fiber.
Okay, fine. So maybe putting microscopic chlorella on this list of sea vegetables is kind of pushing it, but chlorella is avidly being used as a food ingredient in Korea. Being full of vitamins, amino-acids, minerals, and fiber; it is either made into pills for separate consumption or made into powder to be incorporated into other foods such as noodles.
Sea vegetables can also be fried and seasoned with a sweet touch to make snacks, like gim and dashima. For those with a sweet tooth, the fried gim can also be used as a rice topping.
Despite huge differences in shape and texture, in English most sea vegetables seem to be translated as either “seaweed”, “laver”, or “algae” which I think is oversimplification. They’re all different and have their own unique names! I know the Japanese and Chinese differentiate them as well, but are there other cultures that do so? Please let us know.
Oh, and have a big bowl of miyeok guk on your next birthday. Hopefully, there’ll be someone special to make it for you.