As the saying goes “The March winds are the yawn of the morning”, a cool spring breeze not only awakens our souls, but infuses renewed energy into nature.
During this season, one of the side dishes almost always found on Korean dining tables is namul, or seasoned vegetables and herbs.
Although now available year-round, many wild plants, herbs, and vegetables are at their best in the spring.
Most varieties of namul are bathed in shades of green, but not all of them have to be this color. Pumpkin squash, mushrooms, bean sprouts and different types of seaweed, for example, can also be counted as namul.
There are different categories of namul, such as bom namul, which literally means spring namul, and san namul, or wild vegetables picked from the mountains. On the first full moon of the year, Koreans traditionally have boreum namul, in reference to the full moon, which is eaten in hopes of maintaining good health, especially in the coming summer.
Although it takes a lot of effort and patience to prepare vegetables and herbs, namul seasonings are kept simple.
After it has been blanched or steamed, it is usually seasoned with garlic, salt or soy sauce, and sesame oil or perilla oil. A little fine red chili powder, ground sesame seeds or chopped spring onion can be sprinkled on top for a visually delicious finish.
The various greens possess a unique flavor and texture – some are sweet and some bitter – and seasoning is kept to a minimum to bring out the inherent taste of each green.
Namul is usually enjoyed with a bowl of rice and soup, making it a full and satisfying meal.
Below are three restaurants in Seoul where you can taste spring.
Located in the chic district of Hannam-dong between wine shops, cafes and pizzerias, Parc, a modern namul restaurant, has been in existence for nine years.
Breaking the stereotypical image of Korean namul places, a large painting of Barcelona, Spain’s Park Guell hangs at the entrance. Souvenir stamps, cups and posters collected from various countries are placed on the upper shelves, giving an exotic look to the traditional Korean cuisine restaurant.
The signature dish is the 7-Namul platter, which includes varieties of bracken, eggplant, Korean thistle, shiitake mushrooms, cham namul, seasoned deodeok root and baby squash.
A bowl of brown rice and doenjangguk is served with three different sides. While namul can be eaten separately as a side dish, spicy gochujang is offered as a side dish so you can mix the different namul and rice with a spoonful of spicy batter to make your own bibimbap.
7-Namul Platter, Seoul Park’s signature menu (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)
“Our restaurant is characterized by a blend of muguen (old) namul, geon (dried) namul and saeng (raw) namul. Depending on the season, cham namul, bangpung namul and deodeok can be changed to different types of namul, which adds to the pleasure of visiting in different seasons,” Pak said. Additional namul dishes are served as a side dish only during the three spring months.
Mentioning that he missed his mother’s homemade spring namul the most during hiking trips abroad, Pak said he hopes his meals will be like hearty namul meals prepared at home.
The namul platter costs 15,000 won, and side dishes and rice can be ordered at no additional cost.
2. Wonjo Jeongseon Halmae Gondrebab
Wonjo Jeongseon Halmae Gondrebab Insadong, located in a narrow lane of Insa-dong, is the main branch of the Jeongseon Halmae Gondrebab restaurant chain.
The place is named after Jeongseon in Gangwon Province, famous for gondre, or wild thistle shoots, which usually grow in clean alpine regions above 700 meters above sea level.
Since its opening in 2000, the restaurant has received rave reviews from foreigners visiting Korea, through word of mouth and via social media. It has become a must-visit restaurant in Insa-dong.
Ordering Gondre Jeongsik will get you a set of four different namul dishes, ganjanggejang (raw crab marinated in soy sauce) and galbijjim (braised beef ribs).
There is a sign on each table indicating how to enjoy gondrebap. First, take a sip of the offered tea to warm your stomach. Then put some of the chef’s soy sauce, or gangdoenjang, on the gondrebap. After eating gondrebap this way, mix different varieties of namul in the gondrebap and mix them with two or three spoonfuls of ganjanggejang sauce.
“During the winter season, we dry the gondre for longer storage. But from April, Jeongseon’s fresh gondre is steamed fresh,” the store manager told the Korea Herald. She pointed out that Jeongseon’s gondre differs from that of the eastern island of Ulleungdo in both taste and color, which is a fun fact that most visitors don’t know.
Gondre Jeongsik costs 20,000 won per person and all side dishes including namul can be refilled. Gondre-based makgeolli is also sold here.
The namul specialty restaurant located in Yangjae, south of Seoul, is named after the Odaesan mountain in Gangwon province, while sanchae refers to the namul of the mountains.
Compared to most namul restaurants where side dishes are served to order, it takes about 15 minutes for Sanchae Jeongsik to be served.
About eight different types of namul are prepared, varying on different days, according to the restaurant manager.
Most namul restaurants offer a vegetable-based meal, with some optional seafood side dishes, but this place also offers beef bulgogi as part of the meal.
The namul dishes here are quite salty, but steamed tofu and different types of jeon, or Korean fried pancakes, can help reduce the salty taste when eaten together.
The pot of black rice is served with a kettle of broth. Pour over a third of the rice into a separate bowl, then add the broth to the pot and close the lid to make nurungji, or burnt rice soup. Sanchae Jeongsik is priced at 22,000 won.
If you want to try even more varieties of namul, head to Odaesan itself. At the entrance of the mountain, you will find many namul restaurants, offering up to 30 different types of namul.