Monday, October 18, 2010

Many Thanks for Korea's Mountain Vegetable Cuisine

Sanchae Salad from Nwijo
I ventured to Seoraksan National Park this weekend to feast my eyes on the highly anticipated
foliage. Although clearly in the advent stages of the season, the showcase of the color spectrum
was worthwhile. Alongside the accustomed greenery, vivid ambers, oranges and chocolate
browns began to emerge throughout the scenery.

Besides the mountains, I also saw plenty of color in my food pickings. Seoraksan is a
mountainous area that houses a famous sanchae bibimbop, a tasty spin of the mixed rice treat.
Sanchae bibimbop in many ways is the twin of dolsot bibimbop. Both dishes features rice, fried
egg and heavy dollops of red pepper paste. The difference between these two dishes, however,
is quite notable. Sanchae bibimbop is known for its large servings of leafy and root vegetables
that are found in Korea's own mountainous landscape. The overall taste is much fresher than that
of some bibimbop varieties, and sanchae may even be (gasp) tastier.

Sanchae Bibimbop exists in mountainous regions throughout Korea, as well as in a number
of varieties. The northern part of the Chungcheong-do province is known to grow many kinds
of mountain vegetables. Additionally, the Gyeonggi province also houses many mountain
vegetables in the areas surrounding Seoul. Seoraksan, where I got my first taste of sanchae
bibimbop, is located in the Gangwon province in the eastern part of Korea.

There are plenty of Korean vegetables that can be found in both bibimbop dishes. Some of those
(but not limited to) include Chinese bellflower root (doraji), braken (gosari), cucumber, mungbean
sprouts, carrot, and green onions. Along with those vegetables, however, sanchae bibimbop
may use a number of other mountainous vegetables, including wild asters, spinach, shiitake
mushroom, daikon and red radish. Other kinds of wild greens such as chuinamul, daraesun
(actinidia arguta shoots), soksae, ggaesun (sesame shoots), yuchae and bandi. In some of my
sanchae encounters, I even tasted thin slices of Korean pear! The overall taste was surprisingly
delicious, a taste that was mostly spicy, but also a little sweet.

Of course, many of the vegetables tout a number of health benefits. Most of the dark leafy
vegetables (Chuinamul, spinach) are full of protein, calcium and iron. Wild aster is known as an
alkaline food, and is rich in potassium. Soybean sprouts are also high in the B vitamin folate and
vitamin C.

Besides Sanchae Bibimbop, I also encountered a number of other mountain dishes that are just
as recommendable. Along with sanchae bibimbop, there is sanchae beoseotijjae (mushroom
stew), which has a similar hearty consistency to that of dwenjang jjigae (soybean soup). A
number of dishes also use acorn, including a pancake and jelly (dotorimuk). Grilled todok, is a
pounded mountain root seasoned with red pepper paste. A traditional rice wine similar to Makeoli
was available at the restaurants and stops in Seoraksan for thirsty climbers.

Looking at not only sanchae bibimbop, but most other Korean dishes, it's startling how
resourceful and self-reliant Korean cuisine is. Korean cuisine has a traditionally used foods that
have been literally within picking distance, rather than on imported foods. Not only is sanchae
bibimbop a pragmatic choice (for the cook), but it proves to be the healthy choice (for the eater).
Ultimately, the beauty of sanchae bibimbap is in the harmony between various tastes and nutrition
that results from mixing many mountain vegetables into one bowl.

Lindsey is from Chicago, and generally likes anything vegetarian and Korean. Check out her blog at