Ssuk (mugwort) (Artemisia princeps var. orientalis), which sprouts in the early spring, is a perennial herb of the chrysanthemum family. It is a commonplace herb that can be found practically anywhere in Korea: by the roadside, in paddy fields, on the ridges of terraced fields, and along foothills, embankments, and riverbanks. As evidence of the fact that Koreans have known about ssuk since ancient times, ssuk and garlic are mentioned in Korea’s founding myth. According to the founding myth of Gojoseon, Dangun, the founder of Gojoseon (2333 B.C.-108 B.C.) who is also regarded as the progenitor of the Korean nation, was the son of Hwanung, the son of Hwanin, the God of Heaven. When a bear and tiger begged him to make them human, he gave them ssuk and garlic. After living on only ssuk and garlic for 100 days, the bear (the tiger gave up) was transformed into human form, which ultimately resulted in the birth of Dangun.
Rich in Nutrients
Ssuk is used in a number of ways. The young leaves that sprout in March are a favorite ingredient for various foods, while the more mature leaves are dried and used as moxa for tteum (moxacautery) to treat a variety of physical ailments, or as an ingredient for making herbal medicine. In the summer, ssuk would be burned to repel mosquitoes.
The fragrance of ssuk is delightful and distinctive. The face of its leaves is green while the back is covered with milky-white tomentum. Since it is a rich source of minerals and vitamins A and C, farming households have long depended on ssuk whenever food was scarce. Eighty grams of ssuk provide the daily recommended intake of vitamin A, and a significant amount of vitamin C as well, which makes it effective for preventing and treating a cold. And, thanks to its antiseptic quality, ssuk is used to purify indoor air. In addition, the liquid extracted from ssuk was used for bathing because of its antidermatophyte immunological effect, while a clump of mashed ssuk leaves was said to be a remedy for the removal of warts.
A wide variety of dishes is made with ssuk. These include rice cakes, such as jeolpyeon, gaepitteok, and ssukbeomuri, beverages such as ssukcha, and ssukguk, a soup that people enjoy especially in the spring. Traditionally, ssuk leaves were fried with various kinds of vegetables, and also used as an ingredient in jeon, pan-fried delicacies.
Basically, there are two types of ssukguk: aetang, which is made by mixing ssuk, which has been parboiled and minced, with ground meat to form meatballs, which are boiled in soup. For an even simpler dish, you can make the common type of ssukguk found on a family dinner table by boiling ssuk leaves, coated with soybean flour, in a meat broth or soybean paste soup.
Variety of Ssukteok
Thanks to its richness of vitamins and minerals, combining ssuk with acidic foods, such as grains, helps to create foods with more vibrant color and flavor, in addition to boosting their nutritional value. Jeolpyeon is a representative type of tteok, or rice cake. When jeolpyeon is made with ssuk, it will not dry out as quickly, and thus can be kept longer. The inclusion of ssuk in jeolpyeon is a reflection of the wisdom of ancient Koreans, who valued ssuk for its flavorful taste, nutritional value, and jade-agreen color.
To make ssuk jeolpyeon, rice flour is steamed in a large quantity of water and then combined with parboiled ssuk. It is then kneaded with a jeolgu, a kind of mortar for grinding or milling grain, or an anban, a wooden board used to pound tteok, until it becomes glutinous. Then, the glutinous tteok is placed on a wooden board and decorative patterns are imprinted onto its surface. Thereafter, the tteok is made into bite-size pieces and coated with sesame oil. To make pieces of tteok, it should not be cut with a knife; instead, it should be pinched with the fingers and pulled apart. This forms a “tail,” or kkori, from which the kkoriteok name is derived. Finally, a tteoksal, a special kind of mold, is used to imprint the tteok pieces with decorative patterns.
Gaepitteok, which consists of adzuki bean filling that is covered with a thin, round jeolpyeon wrapper and then folded over and shaped into a half-moon, is also known as baramtteok, because the air trapped within the tteok when it was shaped would be released when bitten into. Other kinds of ssukteok include ssukbeomuri, which is made by steaming rice flour and ssuk leaves, without forming any particular shape, and ssukgule, that is often favored for its enhanced taste and visual appeal. The fact that ssuk has long been regarded as a beneficial herbal ingredient by Koreans is confirmed by the mention of these various kinds of tteok and soups in ancient books and documents.
In Korea, the family tteoksal is a precious heirloom that would be handed down from one generation to another. A tteoksal was typically made of wood, or sometimes clay. Since individual households tended to have tteoksal with distinctive patterns, in the olden days, people could identify the maker of a particular tteok from its decorative pattern. In this way, even though tteok was made for people to eat, its careful preparation would be undertaken in accordance with long-standing tradition. Indeed, for Koreans, this attention to the visual appeal of foods only added to the enjoyment of their delectable tastes.