There’s an old song in Korean about doraji (도라지, bellflower root).
After Arirang, the Doraji Taryeong is Korea’s second most-known folk song. The lyrics vary from region to region but all of them are narrated by someone who has gone deep into the mountains to look for the white doraji. “Just one or two roots and my basket is overflowing,” they sing. Finding doraji meant adding a nutty, nutritious element to your table at home—and if you’ve had good doraji, you’ll see why it was worthy of song.
But in its raw state, doraji is mouth-puckeringly bitter. Doraji is loaded with saponins, a bitter compound, and more specifically triterpene glycosides. Studies have shown these compounds have anti-inflammatory effects and aid respiratory illnesses, though that’s old news to Korean mothers. Doraji tea laced with honey has long been a common folk remedy for colds and coughs. People will collect the small root trimmings from doraji and set it aside for tea when the occasion arises.
Doraji plants can be found on mountain hillsides and fields throughout Asia, and are most distinctive in spring when they bloom. From this bitter root springs one of springtime’s most beautiful flowers: The “balloon flower” or “bellflower” bud is a puff of deep lavender, tight with possibility, that pops into a five-petaled burst of color, or sometimes a pure white petaled star. One of Seoyoung’s favorite memories as a child was running around the fields in springtime, pinching the buds between her fingers and hearing the tiny pop.
These pretty little signposts tell you where to dig up your bitter doraji roots, though you’ll have to have keener eyes in fall, when the blossoms have long gone but the roots are at their plumpest. These days, of course, most doraji are farmed. They’re easy to find in marts and markets, and you’ll often see grandmothers selling the roots pre-peeled and sliced on sidewalks and in subway stations. Once you’ve gone through the work of peeling these tough little roots yourself, you’ll be grateful for the work their wrinkled hands have done. Don’t haggle. Pay and thank them.
Back in the bburi studio, we spent a while talking about why the Doraji Taryeong became such an iconic folk song in Korea. Arirang is about sweeping themes of leaving and losing one’s home, easily relatable to Korea’s turbulent history. But the Doraji Taryeong? Someone picking a humble little root in the mountains? Maybe, we decided, it all comes down to how important foraging was to the Korean diet. In hard times, one bitter root could make all the difference. And finding something beautiful in bitterness, even realizing that bitter can be good for you—there’s something essentially Korean about that.
Doraji muchim was always served at weddings with squid and cucumber, and it was one of my favorite foods as a kid—it was so sweet and tasty. These days, now that I’m older, I appreciate the more subtle bitter flavors of simple doraji banchan. Doraji is available year-round, but it’s especially tender and delicious in the spring. Spring doraji is also easier to peel. Come fall, doraji is plumper, more fragrant and has a tougher skin. It also has more medicinal properties this time of year, which is perfect for all the colds people are getting in the chilly weather.
how to eat
Generally, doraji can be eaten as a raw salad mixed with seafood and cucumber seasoned with vinegar gochujang sauce; or it can be simply sautéed and eaten as a banchan or added to japchae or bibimbap as well. Doraji consists of 90% carbohydrates, so it has both sweetness and still a slight aftertaste of sharp bitterness (아린맛) at the same time.
Western cooking applications: I once made a doraji pasta sauce that was quite mild and nutty. After blanching your doraji in milk, blend with walnuts, pine nuts and almonds and season and salt and pepper. It’s delicious!
how to choose
If you go to the traditional market, you’ll probably see two kinds of doraji: just plain doraji, and something called yak-doraji (약도라지, medicinal doraji). Plain doraji is between 1–3 years old, and yak-doraji is usually 4–6 years old. Naturally, yak-doraji is bigger, more expensive, has stronger flavors, and is more often used for medical purposes, though both kinds can be eaten. When choosing your doraji for eating, try to get roots without too many rhizomes. When you touch the root, it shouldn’t feel too dry. When choosing peeled and sliced doraji, the whitest roots are not always a guarantee of the freshest state—sometimes vendors will bleach the roots to look whiter.
how to prepare before cooking
It’s really important to get rid of doraji’s 아린맛 (sharp bitterness), so if you have already peeled and sliced your doraji lengthwise, you have to scrub thoroughly with very coarse sea salt, until it becomes softened. After this, you have to soak it in water for 3 to 4 hours, or until the majority of the bitterness has leached out.* One more tip: If you are planning to sautée the doraji and you want to remove more bitterness, you can lightly blanch the roots before sautéeing them.
*These days, some recipes recommend scrubbing your doraji with sugar and soaking in sugar water. However, this is really not necessary in my opinion, because doraji has a natural sweetness that comes out with proper preparation.
how to store
If you buy your doraji roots un-peeled and un-washed, wrap it in newspaper or paper towels and store it in the vegetable section of your refrigerator. It should last several weeks, but double check to replace soggy paper. If you buy your doraji peeled and sliced, wrap it with a damp paper towel and store it in an airtight container for about three days. If you’re planning to use your doraji in a sautée, you can lightly blanch and freeze it. But for the best way to consume doraji, you have to go with my mom’s advice:
Me: 엄마는 도라지 어떻게 보관하세요? (Mom, how do you store doraji?)
My mom: 뭘 보관해? 그냥 빨리 먹어!!! (What are you talking about? Just eat it quickly!!!)