Digging into the story of cham-namul turned out to be a case study in mistaken identities, a plant world mystery of invasion and identity theft.
First of all, there’s no good translation of cham-namul in English, and that’s because it’s very very much a local Korean ingredient. Cham-namul, or Pimpinella brachycarpa, has been growing in Korea for ages. It grows in the mountains under the shade of trees and has smooth, spade-shaped leaves. Here’s where it gets tricky: The stuff labeled “cham-namul” in most marts and grocery stores? That’s probably actually Cryptotaenia japonica, a Japanese look-alike (and taste-alike) whose real name is samyeopchae, or mitsuba in Japanese.
The story goes that during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japanese settlers brought along with them the taste of home, planting their own vegetables and greens here in Korea. One of these was samyeopchae, named for its smooth leaves that grow in threes, like giant clovers. Korean original cham-namul also has leaves that grow in threes, though the main difference is that its stems have a purplish tinge while samyeopchae’s stems are pale green. In recent years, the farming and marketing of samyeopchae as cham-namul has become something of a local agricultural issue. One article we found from 1998 pointed out that native cham-namul can be planted from seed and harvested for two to three years. As the article indicates, the Japanese samyeopchae must be replanted every year, producing more profits from seed sales. There may be other reasons for this case of mistaken identity, but one thing is for sure: Real cham-namul is really hard to find.
The first time I tried real cham-namul, Sonja and I had just arrived at the oil-jang (five day market) in Jeongseon, Gangwon Province. A halmeoni (grandmother) was sitting next to the bus stop selling some greens, and they looked so fresh and perfect, it was obvious they must have been picked in the early morning that same day day. I asked her what it was, and she replied gruffly, “How could you not know this?” and went right back to peeling her greens. Damn. (I was wearing flower print sunglasses and obviously looked like a city person who had no idea about the value of life and how to be grateful for what we eat.) After asking her one more time with a humble and toned down voice, she asked me scoldingly, “You don’t know cham-namul?”
“HOOOOOOOORAY!” I almost screamed. ”Is it a real chamnamul?” I asked her again, with the overwhelming joy that I finally can taste this local product. “그려,” geuryeo (of course!) she now answered with a friendly halmeoni tone, and she added, “This is what I’ve got from the deep forest in the early morning. Only the people who know the value of this, know how precious it is!” “Yeah~~~I’m one of them, halmeoni!” Taking off my flower print sunglasses, I bought as much of the plant as I could get.
chamnamul vs samyeopchae:
Chamnamul has purplish stems and samyeopchae has more pale green stems as it is explained above. This is the easiest way to distinguish which is which. But this is information even not many Koreans know. We have mostly been informed that samyeopchae is cham-namul. So the information below will be for samyeopchae since you can’t buy Korean cham-namul at the mart.
how to select:
Normally early spring offers you very tender and mild samyeopchae but once the spring gets to deep summer, their leaves get wider and their stems get tougher. Choose non-wilted, bright green leaves, as dark and big leaves are normally too strong and tough.
how to store:
Wrap them with newspaper or paper towels and spray a little water. Wrap them again with plastic wrap. Keep them in the refrigerator. You can store them for about a week.
how to eat:
Samyeopchae and cham-namul can be very versatile. They can be blanched, raw, garnished, and can take the place of herbs since they have a very good aroma. The stems especially are quite aromatic and crunchy, so that you can chop them and easily enjoy as part of your salad or garnish.
Cham-namul muchim (참나물 무침): (link)
Cham-namul geotjeori (참나물 겉절이) : (link)
As close this article of cham-namul and samyeopchae, by now, you’re probably curious, how the flavors between those two are different. But for me, even though it’s been a month since I tasted real cham-namul, I already can’t tell what is what. Flavors are better remembered the more times that you are exposed to those flavors. Maybe I haven’t tasted enough cham-namul. I hope there will be more chances to taste more of this true cham-namul in our future.