This article is the first in a series introducing produce indigenous to Korea.
There is an old Korean legend in which a bear and a tiger are sitting in a sunless cave, staring at several bundles of sacred herbs and a pawful of garlic cloves. If they could survive on this for 100 days, their reward would be a magical transmutation into human females. The tiger couldn’t withstand the boredom and hunger and forfeited with a great leap out of the cave, but the bear prevailed and had her reward. She went on to give birth to Dangun, legendary founder of Gojoseon, the very first Korean kingdom.
Ever since I’ve heard that story, I’ve tried to imagine that bear, alone in the dark, enduring the pungent herbs and searing garlic, patience in every bite. Despite Korea’s recent economic acclaim as an “Asian Tiger” nation, the bear is an apt analogy for the well-known resiliency of Korean character. She most certainly embodies suffering and perseverance in times of duress.
And the “divine” herb that aided her metamorphosis? It’s none other than the common mugwort, or ssuk (pronounced “sook”), ubiquitous and plentiful on Korea’s mountainsides and riverbanks.
She recalls a favorite childhood memory with a smile: “My mom used to cook ssuk soup. When we first saw ssuk soup at the end of winter, we thought, ‘Oh, now spring is coming!’”
If you’ve ever gone hiking in Korea, chances are you’ve come across ssuk’s slightly fuzzy, pronged leaves with colors ranging from a bright green resembling cilantro to a darker, forest shade, depending on the season and the location. These herbs range from just a few centimeters to up to 2 meters in height. In fact, there are 25 varieties of ssuk in Korea, though the types you are most likely to find in markets for use in rice cakes and stews are cham-ssuk and mul-ssuk. Crush the leaves between your fingers and a sharp herbal scent will fill the air. It’s something between lemon, mint, and pine, and altogether refreshing (in fact, if you ever have a stuffy nose, stick a leaf or two up one nostril and see what happens).
Dr. Jia Choi, professor of food history at Ewha Women’s University and CEO of O’ngo Food, notes that ssuk is a highly seasonal food. “Even though, these days, most ingredients are available throughout all seasons, ssuk is a wild vegetable. Nobody grows ssuk, and it’s only available in early spring at the end of winter, so everybody who wants to pick ssuk needs to go to the mountain. That means it’s natural, of course, and organic as well.” She recalls a favorite childhood memory with a smile: “My mom used to cook ssuk-guk (쑥국), which means ‘ssuk soup.’ When we first saw ssuk-guk at the end of winter, we thought, ‘Oh, now spring is coming!’” Apart from the warmer seasons, if you’re lucky, you can find fresh ssuk in the markets during the fall. Otherwise, ssuk is used in dried form until the spring.
One of the most traditional foods at Chuseok, the Korean autumn harvest celebration, is songpyeon made with ssuk. I made the trek into the countryside this past Chuseok to visit my aunt, and arrived to find her kneading a giant ball of sweet rice flour with flecks of dried ssuk. She was crouched on her haunches in that improbably comfortable stance, refusing any aid and adding just a bit of water now and then for a good ten minutes before she pronounced it ready. We all, cousins and aunts and even an uncle or two, sat around the giant bowl plucking out bits of the emerald rice dough and filling them with sugar, beans, nuts and other treasures. “If you make beautiful songpyeon, you’ll have beautiful daughters,” one uncle assures me. “Didn’t my mother make beautiful songpyeon?” I ask coyly, and we all laugh. Later, I lift the lid where the songpyeon has been steaming over a bed of pine needles. The color has settled to a deep jade, and my aunt picks several out, encouraging me to try one. There is the faint herbal hint of ssuk that is not entirely unpleasant, redeemed by the fragrant pine and sugared chestnuts within. I recognize something else too, that sweet rewards come with perseverance and patience.
Medicinally, specially prepared treatments of ssuk are believed to slow bleeding wounds, aid breached childbirths, regulate menstruation, treat stomachaches and cure malaria. Recently, one study discussed artemisin, a compound in ssuk, as a possible cure for cancer. However, due to a toxin in the plant known as thujone, eating large quantities of ssuk over a prolonged period of time isn’t recommended, and pregnant women are advised to avoid it. The International Collation of Traditional and Folk Medicine: Northeast Asia writes in authoritative, abrupt terms about the medicinal uses of ssuk:
“Side Effects: Toxication: Highly exciting central nervous system.”
Nothing comes easy, as our fabled bear might say.
That said, ssuk is perfectly safe to use in cooking, and has been used in a wide variety of Korean dishes for centuries. Jennifer Flinn, a former Fulbright scholar who is passionate about food anthropology, notes that ssuk lends itself well to Korean food. “Not only do you see it in ddeok, but you can also steep it in hot water to make a tisane and add it to soups and stews at the very end of cooking for a touch of flavor. Ssuk is great because it has a quick cooking time but doesn’t necessarily get nasty if overcooked.”
It might be a stretch to say that ssuk started Korean civilization, but this bitter herb is entwined and embedded into Korean history in a way that no other herb is. Its small, fragile leaves belie the weight of its longstanding significance in this country.
If you’re interested in trying ssuk out in your own kitchen, check out this recipe for ssuk songpyeon, the Chuseok rice cakes. If you’re a foodie looking for a daring fusion of East meets West, Seoul in the City blogger/consultant Sarah Lee recommends her recipe for ssuk panna cotta below.
When you purchase your ssuk from the market, remember that it was picked by hand. When you crush a leaf and inhale the clean, herbal fragrance, think about the beginnings of Korean civilization, deep in a cave thousands of years ago. It might be a stretch to say that ssuk started Korean civilization, but this bitter herb is entwined and embedded into Korean history in a way that no other herb is. Its small, fragile leaves belie the weight of its longstanding significance in this country.
By the way, the part of the legend that no one tells you (because it hasn’t been written yet) is that, from the moment the bear became a woman, she never again ate ssuk. The smell made her stomach turn and made her dream of those days and nights, running in the woods as her former self. Something it was best not to think about.
Sarah Lee’s Ssuk Panna Cotta Recipe
One of my all-time favorite desserts is the classic panna cotta. It’s definitely one of the most simple dessert recipes, plus the best thing about it is that you don’t need an oven (we know how this goes if you live in Seoul), and it can be prepared in advance! If you have never made this before, no need to overdramatize (as I usually do when I’m trying out new recipes for the first time!). I promise.
The main character for this recipe is the Korean ssuk (쑥). Ssuk is used in many different varieties of Korean desserts, such as rice cakes, muffins, cookies, etc. Ok, so I actually never made panna cotta with ssuk before. Is this a weird combination? Probably. However, I think I may be one of the first in tempting to create this Italian/Korean blend of flavors!
The result: lip-smacking goodness…seriously addictive. If you have a friend or a significant other to impress, this might be the one…
Ssuk Panna Cotta
50 grams of ssuk (쑥)
500 ml heavy cream
¼ cup or 50 grams sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 sheets of gelatin or 2 tablespoons of powdered gelatin
500 ml of cold water for sheet gelatin/3 tablespoons of water for powdered gelatin
1. Soften the 2 sheets of gelatin in 500 ml of ice-cold water for 5-10 minutes until the gelatin softens, or turns into a ball. Wring out the excess water, set aside. For powdered gelatin, dissolve the gelatin in 2 tablespoons of ice-cold water.
2. Heat the heavy cream, sugar, and ssuk in a medium saucepan in medium low heat.
3. Boil until sugar is dissolved, and the ssuk is softened (similar to boiled spinach texture) for 3-5 minutes.
4. Remove from heat, and let the ssuk rest in the saucepan for another 5 minutes (you will see the color of the mixture change to a subtle green).
5. Lightly oil 4 prepared cups with a neutral-tasting oil.
6. When the panna cotta mixture turns to a subtle green color, remove the ssuk from the saucepan. The temperature of the panna cotta mixture should not be too hot.
7. Then add the vanilla extract while it’s still warm, and stir.
8. Place the gelatin in another medium bowl, and slowly pour the warm panna cotta mixture and stir until the gelatin is dissolved.