Koreana AUTUMN 2003 Vol.17 No.3
Muk : A Refreshing Taste to Whet the Appetite
Koo Chun-sur
Director, World Food Research Institute
Bae jae-hyung Photographer, Kim Young-hee Food Stylist
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Muk is a kind of gelatin made from the starch extracted from grains, nuts, or roots, which is dried into a powder, boiled in water, and then poured into a mold to congeal. The flavor of muk is in large part determined by the condiments used in its preparation, which can include soy sauce, ground sesame seeds, scallions, garlic, and other seasonings.

With its main ingredient being starch, there are as many varieties of muk as there are sources of starch. However, the favorite varieties savored by Koreans generally include dotorimuk (acorn gelatin), cheongpomuk (mung bean gelatin), and memilmuk (buckwheat gelatin). Muk is simple and easy to prepare. As an effective means of surviving the times when food was scarce, muk conjures up vivid memories for Koreans, in particular those generations who endured severe hardship.

Outside Korea, the nearest equivalent to muk is perhaps manioc. Indigenous peoples of Africa extract the starch from manioc (also known as mandioc or cassava), which is eaten in the form of a sausage. The manioc plant itself is poisonous, but through this preparation, it becomes safe to consume and can be stored longer. Whereas the extracted manioc starch is eaten directly, the Koreans cook the starch used for making muk. The Quechua people of the Peruvian highlands are also known to use the fermented starch of potatoes for various dietary applications.

Humble Dotorimuk

Mention muk to a Korean, and it is dotorimuk that first comes to mind. Dotorimuk is made from starch extracted from the acorns of oak trees, such as sangsurinamu, jolchamnamu, and gadotorinamu. In the days of old, these oak trees were found in abundance throughout Korea's mountainous areas, covering the ground with acorns in autumn. A gift of nature, the acorns were a readily available source of consumable starch. Learning to convert acorn starch into food was undoubtedly rooted in the sheer survival instinct of the people of days gone by.

Around the time of the Korean War (1950-53) when food was scarce, acorns were a valuable food source for the starving population. In fact, people were so hungry that they could not wait for the acorns to mature and naturally fall to the ground. Instead, they would desperately attempt to knock or shake the acorns from the branches above. The acorns would be gathered up and peeled to remove the inner nut. After grinding the nuts into a powder, a lengthy soaking was required to extract the starch, which was then dried in the sun. The resulting powder, which could be stored until needed, would be mixed with water and cooked over low heat until it congealed into muk gelatin.

Dotorimuk was long known as an inexpensive food that was not as highly regarded as the more distinctive mung bean gelatin cheongpomuk or buckwheat gelatin memilmuk. In recent times, however, with the discovery that acorns contain nutrients that can help to prevent cancer, dotorimuk has come to be valued as a health food.

Silken Cheongpomuk

"O bird, O bird, O blue bird / Don't land in the mung bean field / For if the mung bean flowers wilt / The cheongpo seller will go away weeping."

Many Koreans, and especially those who grew up in the countryside, can recall singing this folk song in their childhood as they walked along field-side paths. The mung bean (nokdu), a green bean about half the size of a soybean, is considered a high-class bean to be eaten on special occasions.

Cheongpomuk gelatin is made from mung bean starch. Its light coloring gives it a classy look, while its delicate flavor can complement a wide variety of dishes. Consequently, at Buddhist temples, where meat is shunned, cheongpomuk is often served as a reverent offering to the Buddha on holy days. It is also a customary menu item for Korean weddings and 60th birthday celebrations.

With its white translucent appearance, this muk becomes a ravishing delicacy when served with the beautiful fragrant petals of pot marigold or chrysanthemum blossoms. Alternatively, shredded gim (dried laver) can be added as a garnish to produce a dish that is both good tasting and nutritious.

Savory Memilmuk

Memilmuk gelatin is made from buckwheat starch. During the harshest period of modern Korean history, the years following the Korean War, as people struggled to survive the severe winter cold, they longed for the chance to enjoy memilmuk. After the sun had set and the darkness of evening began to take hold, their mouths would instantly water when they heard the cry of the memilmuk vendor making his rounds through the neighborhood: "Buy my memilmuk! Buy my memilmuk!" Of note, memilmuk is also simple to prepare; just add some chopped kimchi, coarsely ground sesame seed, and soy sauce, and it is ready to eat.

Buckwheat is grown in regions of the northern hemisphere where a lack of sunlight makes it difficult to grow other crops. When cooked, it loses its stickiness and can be easily handled. Compared to other grains, buckwheat is rich in protein, vitamins B1 and B2, and niacin. Because of its high nutritional value and low caloric content, nowadays it is a popular diet food. It also contains lutin, thought to be efficacious in the treatment of diabetes and geriatric illnesses.

Memilmuk is engraved in the memory of any Korean over the age of 50 as a food that is indelibly associated with home. Enjoy these varieties of muk for a taste of the true Korea that you, too, will never forget.
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