Have you ever seen a dog eat grass in spring? It seems so contradictory since we assume that dogs should eat meat. Veterinarians believe that dogs consume grass for it fulfills some nutritional need and since dogs can’t gather other ingredients, they eat grass. Luckily, people are much more sophisticated than dogs. Through science and experience, humans are able to get a vast array of foods that help the body recover from the cold, slow winter. Koreans believe that during winter our bodies go into a hibernation mode and our metabolism slows in order to last through the winter. Therefore, by springtime our bodies are in a nutritional deficit, which is alleviated by the eating of spring greens.
Spring Walks with My Mother
When I was a kid, in spring, my mother, who is Korean, and I would go for a mountain hike. While I saw it as a form of relaxation and exercise, for her it was a shopping expedition. She always had a basket with her because she would pick certain leaves and vegetables. Later she would make a spring greens bibimbap and side dishes. The vegetables that she picked were fresh shoots and leaves. Springtime was the best for these for their bright taste. By watching her, I was able to learn where the greens were and how to properly choose them. My mother knew when it was the best time to pick them: in a few short weeks these same leaves and shoots would taste bitter. My mother told me that the spring greens had a lot of panax—the same stuff as in ginseng—and that by eating them, we would be healthy.
The Different Types of Spring Greens
On our walks she’d usually pick chui-namul, which is a fuzzy, light green leaf. She also found some cham-namul, which looks like cilantro. She’d blanch these and make vegetable side dishes by adding some wild sesame oil, salt, and chili powder.
Through my mother I learned there are lots of other spring greens, or bom namul. For example, one of my favorites is bomdong, which looks like a green chrysanthemum flower except that it also resembles a large cabbage that is about 15 centimeters across. These vegetables are used to make geotjeori, or a fresh kimchi salad. The crunchy and green flavor is delicious in a garlic and chili dressing. Some people like to make Korean pancakes with them as well.
Also in spring, I love naengi, or shepherd’s purse. It’s got an herbaceous and sharp green, almost turnip-like flavor. It’s wonderful in a soybean paste stew because the strong flavor accentuates the bean paste broth.
Another favorite is dol-namul, which looks like a rosemary herb but has a crisp, juicy bite. The flavor is like green sunshine and you just drizzle some vinegar and red chili sauce on it. This particular vegetable is amazing as a side with raw sashimi.
A green that has become very popular these days to add to steamed rice is gondeure. It is believed to be full of vitamins and an excellent diet food as well.
One of the more unusual ones is saebal-namul which is a spring green that looks like a stick person. The name, saebal, means “bird’s feet” and it is a sturdy little green that has a subdued crunch. It is great in saebal pajeon, or spring greens pancake, which goes well with a cup of makgeolli (Korean rice wine).
Bom Namul in Ancient Korea
The practice of eating spring greens dates back to ancient times. A popular dish to eat by royalty was ipchun osinban, or “platter of 5 spring greens.” These greens were found in the local fields and chosen according to color. Green herbs with some yellow were put in the center and herbs that had blue, white, and black were placed around it. The yellow also symbolized the king and the other colors represented balance and harmony.
How to Try Spring Greens in Modern Times
In the early spring, you’ll often see hikers gathering shoots, leaves, and herbs. You are welcome to do this in some parks but you might be worried if some greens might be poisonous. In this case, I would recommend you take an experienced gatherer and learn from them just like I did from my mother. In the spring, you’ll often see restaurants advertising mountain greens bibimbap (sanchae-bibimbap). If you enjoy mountain hiking, you’ll usually find such restaurants around famous mountains like Namsan, Bukhansan, Jirisan, and more. Barley rice (boribap) restaurants also use many spring greens. The dish is delicious when topped with a bean paste sauce instead of red chili paste. Another dish that will have many spring greens and side dishes is ssambap, or wrapped rice. This is one of my favorite meals as you get dozens of side dishes along with some meat such as beef, pork, or duck and many different leaves for making a wrap. Just remember to not make the wrap too big or you’ll be wearing your meal.
The window for trying these spring greens is very short. My general rule is: when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, it is the best time to search out restaurants serving spring greens. They are definitely worth waiting through the winter for.
Park Sung Eun email@example.com
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