Dallae is one of the harbingers of spring, a versatile bom-namul with a mild kick. Yes, it looks like a chive—they’re in the same genus, Allium, along with onions, shallots and garlic. In Chinese characters, dallae is sometimes referred to as sansan (山蒜), mountain garlic, or sosan (小蒜), little garlic.
During the Joseon Dynasty, different regions were obligated to give tributes of their seasonal local produce to the king. Amongst the five spicy vegetables (oshinchae, 오신채) that came every spring from villages around Gyeonggi Province, one of these was dallae. With the taste of dallae, it was said, the king would know it was spring. Oshinchae, which originally included dallae, garlic, spring onions, garlic chives, and Chinese squill, were known for their invigorating properties—Buddhist monks are forbidden from eating them because they’re said to excite the body and distract from meditation.
We don’t know exactly how long the Korean people’s relationship with dallae has gone back, but there is apparently an old folk song with the line “달래 먹고 예뻐졌나?” or “Did you get so pretty from eating dallae?” Maybe it’s all those vitamins packed into spring greens like dallae that are supposed to make your skin glow (70g of dallae has 1/4 of your recommended daily vitamin C intake). Dallae also contains very high amounts of calcium and helps the body to release unnecessary sodium.
There’s one last song that just about every Korean will know. It’s a children’s song whose chorus goes: “gochu meokgo mem mem / dallae meokgo mem mem” (eat a pepper, mem mem! / eat some dallae, mem mem!”) “Mem” is child-speak for “spicy.” This song has been sung since the Joseon Dynasty, when the lyrics were a little different*, but this version with dallae has been around for about a hundred years and going strong. It tells the story of a father who leaves home for work, and the children who run around wild eating peppers and dallae.
These days, you’re more likely to get dallae from a greenhouse than a mountain, and it’s easy to find in markets and marts around Korea. Dallae is generally in season from early March to late April, though these days you can even find it in late January and February.
*The original lyrics were “gochu meokgo mem mem / dambae meokgo mem mem” (have a pepper, mem mem / have a cigarette, mem mem). In the 1920s, in an effort to prevent childhood smoking, the song was changed to its current version.
In Korea, we say that when the soft, warm breeze of spring starts to blow after the harsh winter, a sleepy doziness comes with it, and makes us lose our appetite. Dallae is one the ingredients that helps us regain our lost appetite.
flavor profile: It’s difficult to describe, but imagine the combined flavor of shallots towards the bulb and chives in the stems. And overall, it’s slightly garlicky. Since it’s milder than regular spring onions, it’s also good for eating uncooked as well as cooked.
how to choose: Find dallae that has fresh green leaves on top instead of wilted and yellowy leaves. If you choose too big of a bulb, it has less flavor then smaller ones. So try to get medium sized bulbs (if it is too small you will test your patience cleaning it).
how to eat: We sometimes eat dallae as a muchim (무침, raw salad), but the most common way is adding it to doenjang-guk (된장국, soybean paste soup). The sharpness of dallae adds a really nice kick to the nutty and fermented doenjang-guk. Another popular way to enjoy this little spring welcomer is making seasoned ganjang with dallae and mixing it with steamed rice.
You can replace chives or garlic or shallots with dallae, depending on how you choose to use the bulb and/or stems. You can chop them and garnish your pizza or even sprinkle over your salad. It goes really well with meat, so you can also use it for any kinds of salad that contain meat.
dalle ganjang (달래간장, wild chive soy sauce)
naengi-guk with dallae (냉이달래국)
how to store: Dallae is a pretty thin and delicate ingredient, so ideally it would be best to consume it as soon as possible. But if you have any left over, wrap it with newspaper and spray with some water so that it can help to protect from drying.