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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Perilla: A Korean Treasure

It's nearly impossible to me to pick my favorite Korean food. So many different kinds exist, covering an expansive range of tastes, smells, textures, and cooking methods. Plus, since just about everything you order is served with several side dishes, you almost never eat just one kind of food in isolation. However, if pressed (slight pun alert!), there might just be one food I love more than the others. I appreciate its fecundity, admire its versatility, savor its scent, and might be happy eating it in some form at every meal for the rest of my life. Had I been more eloquent as an elementary schooler, I might have spoken this way about Pizza Combos. Now that I've matured a bit, though, I prefer Perilla.

Although foreigners and dictionaries here often refer to Perilla leaves as Sesame leaves (the Korean name, 들깨, is pronounced Deul Kkae, which literally means "wild/field Sesame), Perilla is not in fact all that closely related to the Sesame plant . Rather, it belong to the mint family - a fact to which its extremely fantastic smell testifies. Once, while volunteering on a Korean farm in the dead of winter, I was asked to help the farmer round up some leftover stalks and weeds from last year's harvest. I expected the long-dead, decomposing material to reek of decay (which is, if you care to get philosophical about it, just the smell of another form of life), but as I raked the stems and leaves into piles, I found myself surrounded by an aroma familiar but fuller and richer than what I remembered, tinged with just a bit of spice. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to eat the source, or bathe myself in it.

The plant in question was, of course, Perilla, also known in English as "Beefsteak" for no apparent reason. I love Perilla so much that, when I first decided to sign up for the tour, before the details of the trip were all filled in for us, I was hatching plans to drag my team to a Perilla farm for the whole time, so that I could learn everything there is to know about the plant. How do you grow it, and when? How does it produce so many seeds, and out of which orifices? How hard is it to harvest them and turn them the products you find on store shelves? If I walk through a field of Perilla, might I pass out and wake up thinking I've made it to heaven? Is it possible to die of olfactory satisfaction?

Those plans didn't work out (actually a pretty fortunate turn of events, considering how awesome the rest of our food tour was), so you can imagine my joy when we stumbled upon a worker at Joseon Village hanging out next to a big pile of what looked from afar like nondescript sticks.

If you could smell it, you'd already know, but since Google hasn't added that service to blogs yet, I'll zoom in and show you: here lies treasure.

These are the stalks of the almighty Beefsteak plant. It had originally looked like this,

but the leaves had already been harvested, to either be eaten raw along with meat, rice, and garlic, to be made into kimchi, or to be battered and pancake-ified. (I also use them in lieu of basil when making my own Korean version of pesto.) As if that weren't enough, though, the plant has more to give: inside each little pod rests a seed, a little pocket of nutrition and deliciousness. Each Happy Bear made an attempt to master the patented ultra high-tech Joseon Dynasty Perilla Extraction Method, i.e., grab a handful of branches, set a little basket under them, and thwack 'em with a stick. The seeds and pods drop off into the basket, as shown below. Then you do a bit of sifting to get rid of the inedibles, and, voila, you've got what you were after.

What can you do with these seeds? It'd be better to ask what you can't do with them. First of all, if you're famished or greedy, you can eat them straight. The seeds don't have all the savory herbiness that you find in the leaves; rather, they're rich and creamy and smooth. One of our team members - Andy, I believe, who was having his first taste of pure Perilla - commented that they tasted like walnuts; at which point Tanya's face lit up. Due to her nut allergy, she had never been able to taste walnuts and had long wondered what they were like. All of a sudden, she had run into their approximation in the form of a long-lost Korean step-cousin.

I'm trying to smile, but my mouth is full of seeds. This must be a what a bear feels like when it at long last gets into a beehive.

If you've got a little more patience, you can grind them into a powder or press them into an oil. The powder is often added in small to seaweed or soybean paste soups to give them a bit of hearty sweetness and to counterbalance any salt; or, it can be used as the main component of a noodle broth, as in the fantastic-if-under-known-about 들깨칼국수 (Deulkkae Kalguksu):

I hope you'll pardon a slight digression on how great this dish is, particularly for veg*ans such as myself. Imagine: a giant bowl of thick, formidably chewy noodles, in a sauce that reminds you of Alfredo, only slightly thinner and minus the greasiness, indigestion, and regret. Steamy, creamy, and oh-so-filling, the broth is made by adding powdered perilla seeds into a savory stock (most restaurants include meat in the broth, but all you need to make a purely vegan version at home is a bit of vegetable boullion); the perilla seeds are packed full of good stuff like plant protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and E, and dietary fiber, all of which are important nutrients to have in your diet, vegetarian or not.

And there's more: crushed and powdered seeds (들깨가루, Deulkkae Garu) are also used to make a creamy topping for various side dishes, most notably fern bracken and lightly pan-fried tofu. Speaking of which, when pressed, the seeds release an oil (들기름, Deul Gireum), which is exceptionally useful when stir-frying at low temperatures and a represents a great domestic alternative to olive, canola, and other oils imported from afar. There's also one more awesome recipe I'm looking forward to telling you about, but it's kind of top-secret, so you'll have to wait for my post about the meal that my teammates and I put together for our final day's breakfast.

If you're interested in incoporating some Perilla into your diet, you shouldn't have too much trouble. You can find perilla-broth noodles many noodle shops, particularly now that the summer is over and iced bean-broth noodles (콩국수) are off the menus. Grain/bean/seed stalls at traditional markets usually have the seeds by the bucketful, and the oil and powder are available at most local/organic/health food shops as well as, of course, at the megastores. Ah, and one more thing: Deulkkae is traditionally known in Korea for helping people fight off colds and sore throats. Go find yourself a source before the winter sets in!

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