Chwinamul and Wild Spring Greens
I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in wild spring greens in my life until this year; looking back childhood, there was a moment my family had a field trip to some countryside with about an hour long of bus ride to dig up some, mostly mugworts(쑥). It happened only once.
Thanks to weekly trip to Kyoungdong Market, now I can realize the presence of them, and have been trying to cook and eat them as much as possible. In the market, there are some booths specialized for greens. Most of them are not very expensive, about 100g/1,000 KRW (about 80 cents?), except fatsia shoots (두릅, Dureup), which is about three times more expensive than others.
I have tried several different kinds of greens, but today I just want to focus on my favorite one, ‘Chwinamul (취나물, not sure how it goes by in English as Wikipedia also goes by this anglicized Korean name),’ Having very pungent aroma, which comes out when snapping the stem (as the lady at the booth would present), and slightly bitter taste in very appetizing fashion, it has been my favorite spring green since I was a kid, when my grandmother would prepare big bowl of them.
There are several different kinds of Chinamuls currently available, but I have only tried the one from Hadong, as the lady merchant recommends it as the best. As I believed the owners of those specialized green booths were the experts of greens, I asked several more questions other than what was the best of Chwinamuls. And they are:
1. What is the best way to prepare them?
Blanch first, and then clean.
You can cook Korean wild greens several different ways, but to do that you need to blanch first for most of them. The preparation of greens is not really hard, but very time consuming as you have to pick every stem to take the dust off the root end and pick wilted leaves out. In fact, that had been the reason I haven’t really tried to cook them seriously. In some booths you can buy pre-blanched ones but that is not my style as there will be nothing I can learn from it.
When blanching, I borrow the page about “Big Pot Blanching”, from French Laundry Cookbook. I have no idea Korean housewives would season the blanching water as they don’t even think I am someone they can exchange cooking tips with, but I do to avoid over-season it with soy sauce (more about it later). When water reaches to rolling boil, put the greens and blanch 1~2 minutes, and put into cold water bath. When blanching, all the dirt comes out relatively easier, and the rest will take off when rinsing.
Once cool, drawing out the water as much as possible is the key as the residual water makes the seasoning bland. I know it sounds way too much basic, but I have ran into a lot of watery greens, whether cooked or not, in Korea. Once I had blanched Dureup at Korean restaurant of some five star hotel, and it literally spat the water out when biting. It was about $120 lunch. I am not kidding. Anyway, with the help of salad spinner and heavy duty kitchen towel, you can squeeze most of moisture out.
2. How to season it?
There are some greens you use only salt for seasoning but for Chwinamul, soy sauce works well. But it needs to be different than the one we usually use. The lady said it should be Korean traditional one, called ‘Chosun soy sauce (조선간장)’, which is less sweet and a lot more brinier. As mentioned above, I prefer seasoning it with salted blanching water as too much soy sauce will dominate the aroma of Chwinamul itself with its own one. For same reason, I do not use toasted sesame oil: a little bit of extra virgin olive oil works fine for me. For textual variation and subtle aroma, I sprinkle some dried perilla seed flower on top. Other than that, no garlic or scallion.
Once prepared, you can keep it in the refrigerator at least for three days. Maybe you can keep it longer but for me, it is too tasty to keep it any longer than that.