Spring is finally here! Flowers are blooming, the sky is blue, mountains are turning a bright hue of green, and people are plucking those greens from the mountains to put on their tables, and not for decoration. Leafy plants, herbs, and roots, i.e. namul (나물) are an essential part of the Korean meal in the form of banchan (반찬, sidedishes), and in the spring where everything is coming up fresh and new, they are even more flavorful and truly give a taste of spring. Besides, spring namul are not only fragrant, but they are also nutritious and give the body an extra healthy boost after a long lethargic winter. As the days grow longer, the body has to adapt to longer activity and not being able to catch up causes that post-meal stupor; something which can be prevented by eating a lot of spring namul.
Most namul can’t be directly translated to English. Although they have their proper botanical names or may be a species of let’s say, watercress, it’s not exactly the same vegetable that would be used in non-Korean cuisine. There are many different kinds of namul used in Korean cuisine, mostly eaten as muchim (무침, lightly mixed with sauce).
Dolnamul, “stone namul”, grows in the mountains and also is capable of growing in the crevices of rocks, thus the name. The young sprouts are eaten; the bunch of tiny leaves before the flowers bloom. It has a sharp clean taste and is mostly eaten raw and dipped in spicy and tart gochujang (고추장, red pepper sauce). It is mostly thought of as an appetizer. It is best to pick the most young ones, as the leaves would be the most fresh and tender.
Meowee is usually used for medicinal purposes to relieve coughing and asthma. Similar to rhubarb, the young sprouts and stems are used in cuisine, mostly mixed with a light gochujang or doenjang (된장, bean paste) as it has a pleasant light bitterness that goes well with traditional condiments. It is also mixed into rice when cooking it.
Chamnamul tastes a bit like celery with a hint of minari (미나리, dropwort) and is mostly eaten as a vegetable for ssam (쌈), the vegetables used to wrap grilled or steamed meat. The stems are soft, making it appropriate to eat raw and the taste goes very well when made into kimchi. It is full of vitamin A and is recommended for those with anemia.
Naengi grows in the plains and fields. High in protein, vitamins, and calcium, the roots have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. In the spring, the young roots and stem are eaten whole. Its bittersweet taste matches extremely well with doenjang, so it is either mixed with it as muchim or put in doenjang jjigae (된장찌개). It also goes well with other jjigaes. The roots are particularly fragrant.
The brilliant yellow flowers that bloom and cover Jeju Island in the spring are yuchae flowers (rape flowers). They have a curiously tart fragrance which remains even after being cooked; they are usually blanched and made into a muchim either with doenjang or perilla sauce.
Another popular namul used for medicinal purposes, gomchwi is known to ameliorate blood circulation, among many things. Its small yellow flowers are quite easy to spot all over the country, as it grows in the mountains and fields alike. The young sprouts are eaten in the spring as muchim while the older roots are used for medicine in the fall.
The young stems and roots are eaten in the spring. Sseumbagwi has a strong bitter taste, especially in the roots, so they are usually dunked in water for a while before being made into muchim. The accompanying sauce (whether doenjang or gochujang) is sometimes enhanced with something sweet to balance out the taste, but there are many who enjoy the original bitterness the namul has to offer.
As it has a slightly bitter taste, chwinamul is used as ssam, blanched and made into muchim, or stir-fried. One of the most versatile spring namul, it can be also made into kimchi, which has been popular in recent years. It is high in protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins, and obviously used for medicinal purposes as well.
Leaves, stems, and roots, the whole of dureup is eaten after the bark is removed. After blanching, is eaten dipped whole in a tart gochujang sauce or may be quickly deep fried as well. It has a slightly bitter taste that goes well with traditional condiments. Full of protein, the best ones are fresh and short.
Bomdong is simply open faced cabbage which has grown in the wild. It has a juicy sweetness and crunchy texture which is appealing to the palate after the long winter months. It is mixed with a light sauce made from the condiment of choice – doenjang, gochujang, or ganjang (간장, soy sauce) – or made into a great soup or stew, or used as a topping for rice or noodles after being mixed with sesame oil and salt.
Dallae is another namul whose roots are eaten along with the stems. They are usually described as “wild chives” although they have a unique sharp taste with a hint of heat. The bigger the bulb, the hotter they will be. The light skin is removed before eating and it is a popular ingredient to add to soups and jjigaes.
In the spring months, namul show up not only on the tables at home, but at many Korean restaurants as well. Special spring dishes are presented for a limited time, as the spring namul come and go as quickly as the flowers bloom and fade. Either as banchan or ssam or ingredients for a special bibimbap, it is the only time of year when you can taste the true flavors of spring namul, so go out and seize the chance and breathe in the freshness of spring, before summer decides to barge in. Bon appétit!