Of all the vegetables in the traditional Korean diet, godeulbbaegi (고들빼기, Crepidiastrum sonchifolium) is the most intensely bitter.
With its short, knobby tuber and long, green leaves, godeulbbaegi resembles a stunted parsnip, and it’s not a stretch to imagine the root as a grumpy little man, rooty arms crossed beneath a gritty, puckered face. The hanja, or Chinese characters, for godeulbbaegi is 苦菜 (고채, gochae), which literally means “bitter vegetable.”
But is bitter really so bad? We don’t happen to think so. There are many, many compounds that cause us to perceive bitter flavors, but not all of them are toxic. In fact, there’s some evidence that a type of bitter compound in godeulbbaegi called sesquiterpene lactones slows tumor growth. Sure, this type of news gets turned into clickbait (“Kimchi cures cancer!”). But maybe a better way of thinking about this evidence is: Over the course of our lives, what kinds of helpful compounds and supplements are we not getting the more we eat processed and the less we eat fresh? Godeulbbaegi is one of those vegetables that young Koreans eat less and less of, and it was even hard for us to find it in the regular grocery stores—you’ll have to head to a traditional market to pick up this special vegetable.
Peak godeulbbaegi season comes between September and October, when the roots are more fully developed—in fall, goddeulbbaegi is both a root vegetable and a bitter green, a two-for-one bonus packed with complex flavors.
Godeulbbaegi is not a common ingredient for your daily bapsang (home-cooked meal), but I remember that my mom’s and grandma’s generations always looked for this ingredient whenever the seasons when you might lose your appetite came. In Korea, people often feel that they lose their appetite during the lazy, dozy springtime or after the hot, sweating summer days are gone. Bitter flavors incite production of gastric juices, so they help to wake up your digestive system and bring your appetite back.
how to eat:
Spring: Young godeulbbaegi leaves can be eaten as ssam (wrapping vegetable, usually accompanied with rice and meat) or as a blanched salad (무침, muchim) seasoned with gochujang (고추장, red chili paste) or doenjang (된장, fermented bean paste).
Fall and winter: Fall godeulbbaegi has a very strong bitter flavor so after going through some preparations, you can use it in a muchim. However, most of the fall and winter godeulbbaegi is used for making kimchi.
Godeulbbaegi muchim (고들빼기 무침, godeulbbaegi blanched salad)
how to prepare:
Clean godeulbbaegi by getting rid of the wilted leaves. To get rid of the dirt, either use a rough sponge or scrape out the dust on the root and where the leaves and root connect using the tip of a paring knife (this is a pain in the ass, but be patient). Now it’s time to remove some of the bitter flavors, and there are two methods:
Method 1: Muchim preparation
Place the godeulbbaegi in a big container, and fill up with fresh cold water. Weigh it down with a heavy stone (a heavy pot or plastic bag of water will also work) to keep the plants submerged. Leave for at least 8 hours, periodically replacing the water (about 2–3 times). If you are a big fan of bitter flavors, this method is quite ideal for making muchim, or blanched salad.
Method 2: Kimchi preparation
Layer handfuls of rough sea salt over your trimmed and cleaned godeulbbaegi. Leave for about 20–30 minutes, until it is quite wilted. Rinse the wilted leaves with cold water. Meanwhile, make a salt water bath using about 3 liters of water and 1/2 cup of sea salt (this ratio works for 1kg of godeulbbaegi). Place your godeulbbaegi in the salt water and store in your fridge for about 2–3 days.
Tip: Once you place the godeulbbaegi in water, it must be stored in the fridge or similarly cool location. If you leave it at room temperature, the leaves become mushy and turn black.
how to choose:
Choose tender leaves and strong roots for making kimchi. For muchim, it would be good to have both young and tender leaves and roots as well.
how to store:
If you wrap your godeulbbaegi with newspaper or a moist paper towel and place in an air-tight container, it will last over a week since it has a sturdy, hardy root.