Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bellflower Root Salad (도라지나물)

Mouthwatering mountain root vegetables with a kochujang kick

Bellflower root salad

Doraji! Doraji! Delicious doraji! I have no qualms about joining in the chorus of the Korean folk song lauding doraji, albeit with my own twist. I can still vividly recall my first bite of spicy bellflower root salad, doraji saengchae. The kochujang kicked my tongue first, then, a natural sweetness unfolded with every crunch into the doraji's firm, fibrous flesh.

In my family, many traditional recipes were lost because my halmoni, the glue of my family and Korean traditions, suffered suddenly from stroke. In Korean culture, each generation learns from the previous one. With my mother working 60 hours or more per week at the hospital and grandmother incapacitated, pre-made store-brought banchans showed up on our plates with increasing frequency.

The store-bought banchans still taste great and actually, are often made by halmonis hunched over big metal bowls of banchans. But, the problem with pre-made banchans is lack of quality control. Many banchans contain MSG or corn syrup, despite being halmoni-made. I'm not sure what this signals, if not a change in times.

This bellflower root salad recipe is a modified version of Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall's Toraji Saengch'ae recipe (you can spell it with either a "t" or "d", depending on regional dialect, although the latter is more common). Hi Soo's cookbook, Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, is one of the best Korean cookbooks written in English that you can purchase today. Here is what Hisoo had to say about doraji:

Most of the old Korean folk ballads I know are drenched in han manŭn insaeng, "Life is nothing but regrets and laments." The folk song titled "Toraji" is an exception. Koreans love singing the happy bellflower root-gathering song. In praise of toraji, the lyrics begin,
Toraji! Toraji! White Toraji!
In the deep, deep forest,
Even after digging only one or two roots,
My basket is overflowing.
Youngsters grow up singing and dancing to this plant and eating it too. Seeing a field covered with a blanket of bell-shaped toraji flowers, some snow-white, others a shocking purple, is a beautiful sight.

In the Korean Kitchen, toraji is considered one of the most important herbal roots. It is served on its own as a tasty side dish, included in simple dishes such as soups and pancakes, or in more complex ones from pibimbap and chapch'ae. It makes a delicious candied dessert, too.

I altered Hisoo's recipe to fit my tastes, including garlic, balsamic vinegar, and honey, and I also opted to rub salt into the doraji to remove some of the bitterness, which Hi Soo does not do.

Bellflower Salad Recipe

~ Serves 3-4 people

Over 70 percent of South Korea's landscape is mountainous, so it is no surprise that their food culture is marked by foraging and consists of a diet rich with mountain vegetables and herbs. If you do not have access to fresh doraji, simply soak the dried ones in hot water overnight.

1 lb fresh bellflower roots, doraji
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs kochujang
1 tbs kochugaru (hot pepper flakes)
1 1/2 tbs soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbs vinegar
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
2 tbs vermouth
1 1/2 tbs honey
2 tbs toasted sesame seeds
2 tsp chopped green onion
2 tsp sea salt
1. Rub salt into the fresh bellflower root and let sit for ten minutes.
2. Rinse the bellflower root, and then soak for another ten minutes. Repeat this procedure.
3. Split each root to be about or less than 1/8 inch thick.
4. Use a cheese cloth to squeeze out all excess water from the bellflower roots.
5. Crush the garlic and mix it into the kochujang, soy sauce, sesame oil, hot pepper flakes, vinegars, honey, and half of the sesame seeds.
6. Marinate the bellflower roots, cover and chill for at least 2-3 hours.
7. Garnish with remaining sesame seeds and green onions.

Variation: For a sweeter, chewier version, omit the white vinegar and hot pepper flakes, increase the honey by 1/2 tablespoon, and then pan fry the doraji with a little olive oil.

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