I love spring, not only for the mild weather and flowers everywhere, but also for the bounty of fresh greens that come to markets and restaurants throughout Korea. Though you’ll find namul (which can be roughly translated to greens) almost year-round, bom-namul (spring greens) hold a special place on the seasonal Korean table. Bom-namul arrive in full force by March, disappear one by one as the weather warms up, and are gone by the end of May. Though sometimes the tougher mature plant is sold later in the year, bom-namul in its truest form is a spring-only affair.
Chef Seo-young Jung recalls collecting bom-namul outdoors with her grandmother, each of them armed with just a basket and a spoon. Though Seoul residents these days are more likely to pick up their bom-namul at the market, these greens are no less celebrated. “We believe that bom-namul contain a lot of energy, because it takes a lot of energy to break through the cold winter earth,” Seo-young explains.
Almost every one of these namul can be made as muchim (literally, seasoning), which typically involves blanching or otherwise cooking the greens, then tossing with gochujang, doenjang or soy sauce (or a combination of these). A milder version can be made with crumbled tofu instead of sauces. Bom-namul can also be seasoned raw as saengchae, a typical Korean salad made by mixing uncooked vegetables with gochujang or hot mustard. You’ll be able to find most of these bom-namul in your local mart, though some (like bom-dong, ssuk, minari, and saebal-namul) will be more easily found at a traditional market.
If you’re interested in learning more about cooking with bom-namul, join Seo-young Jung and Seoulist editor Jacqui Gabel at a bom-namul cooking class on Sunday, April 13. Seo-young is a research and development chef who attended culinary school in NYC, and has many insights, stories and tips to share. Sign-up details can be found at the bottom of the article.
Naengi, known as shepherd’s purse in English, is the first namul to emerge from winter’s clutch. It’s tough, dark green, and comes with stringy roots attached. Unlike its younger, more tender compatriots, I think of naengi as the troll of bom-namul. But it takes a tough constitution to break through winter, and this namul is said to contain the greatest amount of energy. Once you’ve scrubbed and blanched the naengi (you may have to boil for a few minutes until the roots are tender enough to be smooshed), it becomes an aromatic addition to doenjang soup or a tasty side dish full of fiber and protein. Note: Naengi suppliers have just stopped delivering, so any naengi in markets is probably the last of the season.
This iconic harbinger of spring looks like someone took a perfectly good cabbage and squashed it flat. Over a foot in diameter, it’s the largest of the bom-namul on this list. Its broad leaves are thick and sometimes tinged with bright yellow, with a crisp and slightly sweet flavor. One of the most common methods of preparing bomdong is for geotjeori, an unfermented cousin of kimchi. (A bom-dong geotjeori recipe in Korean can be found here). As one of the first bom-namul to appear, it also has the shortest season. While you may be able to find bagged leaves of bomdong, the season for fresh heads of bomdong has already passed.
Cham-namul is bright green, with smooth, somewhat waxy leaves and stems. Its bright, fresh flavor is reminiscent of cilantro. When buying cham-namul to eat as saengchae, look for finer, more delicate stems, while cham-namul for blanching should have plumper, thicker stems.
Not to be confused with cham-namul, chui-namul has a similar leaf shape and size, but can be distinguished by its darker color, and tougher, fuzzier leaves. Chui is the word for mouse, so while this may not be the actual etymology, it’s helped me remember which of the two namul is the furry one.
Known in English as the Korean wild chive, dallae is closely related to buchu (garlic chive) but has smaller, rounded stems. It combines the spicy flavors of green onions with the mild flavors of buchu, and is a good addition to jjigae. Dallae can, of course, be made into muchim and served with various meats. Don’t remove the tiny white bulbs—they’re full of flavor. Just peel off a bit of the skin before cooking.
Also known as don-namul (돈나물), dol-namul looks more like a cactus than any of the namul in the bunch. Its fleshy, rounded leaves are juicy, with a mild, slightly mineral flavor. Unlike most other namul, dol-namul isn’t usually blanched, but instead served raw with gochujang. Try this recipe for Dolnamul salad from Seoulist’s sister site Korean Cooking Lab. The word dol means stone, mirroring the English name for this group of plants: stonecrop.
When I first encountered dureup, it reminded me of asparagus. The young shoots of the dureup tree (두릅나무) are harvested to produce this namul, consisting of long green stalks topped with small leafy greens. Dureup is among the latest of the bom-namul, harvested in April and May. It’s delicious when blanched and dressed with gochujang, or even when eaten raw and dipped in gochujang. For a crispier version, opt for dureup twigim, or tempura.
Ssuk, or mugwort, has a wide variety of uses. Not only is this pungent, herbal green used in cooking (soups, rice cakes, jeon), it’s also used in teas, medicines and even herbal baths. Ssuk has long been revered as an herb for women’s health, and its Latin name (Artemisia princeps) also reflects the ancient connection to Artemis, the Roman goddess of the moon. We wrote about ssuk a few years ago here, and included an offbeat recipe for a ssuk dessert.
Often mislabeled as watercress, minari is a water dropwort plant more closely related to parsley (it’s also related to cham-namul). Minari’s distinct fragrance was a key plot point in the 2010 movie Hello, Ghost (starring Cha Tae-hyun), in which its flavor in a unique kimbap recipe triggers a very important memory. In addition to muchim and saengchae, minari is often added to stews. Its delicate, pretty leaves make for a nice garnish.
Saebal-namul is my new favorite spring green, especially since I learned it has 20 times more calcium than spinach. Saebal means bird feet, and the long, branching leaves of this namul do resemble its namesake—picture pudgy pine needles. Saebal-namul is mineral-flavored with a slight crunch, making it a nice background texture in salads and muchim. Perhaps due to this texture, it stays fresh several days longer than other bom-namul. Since it absorbs and retains relatively more salt from the ground, use less salt when seasoning or cooking with saebal-namul. In addition to muchim and salads, you can also chop it up and add it to jeon batter for a variation on pajeon (green onion pancake).
Special thanks to Sunhee Ko