Gomchwi: a pungent mountain herb
Jirisan, or Mt. Jiri, has a special place in the minds and hearts of Koreans—it’s often viewed as a wild place, a vast place, a place where nature still has some power. It’s also unique in that the mountain crosses the borders of three different provinces: North and South Jeolla, and South Gyeongsang. We came to Jirisan not only to escape from the city, but also to try some of the freshest mountain bom-namul (봄나물, spring greens) that you can get. And one of the freshest in season right now? Gomchwi (곰취, Ligularia fischeri), a broad-leafy green whose pungent scent makes it a unique addition to the usual array of spring greens.
Some say that gomchwi was named because it’s a favorite snack for bears (“gom” in Korean), others because the shape of the leaf resembles a bear paw. Gomchwi is related to the chrysanthemum and has bright buttery-yellow blossoms that tower upwards in summer. But before that, when its leaves are young and tender, grandmothers go up into the mountains and pick it, along with dozens of other bom-namul.
Gomchwi likes to grow in moist, shady environments in the mountains across Korea, but these days it’s become so popular that it’s also farmed widely in greenhouses. One gomchwi farm made an irresistibly cute video featuring a large bear who works on a gomchwi farm. One day, he goes into town, but has the worst cravings for gomchwi. You’ll just have to watch it here to find out what happens (and you’ll get a peek into a gomchwi farm, too). Gomchwi from Inje County, Gangwon Province, is started in greenhouses before the seedlings are transported up to the mountains to grow to their full size.
Lately, gomchwi has become known for its purported health effects: it’s loaded with beta carotene, and some even claim that it can help prevent cancer and improve bone strength. So gomchwi can get fairly expensive: one geun (근), or bundle of 600g, costs around 5,000 won, making it pricier than some of the meats that families will buy for their meals.
Gomchwi has a nice pungent and mildly bitter flavor. Because of this aroma and flavor, people especially love to use gomchwi as a ssam (쌈, vegetable) with their barbecued meats. They are broad and sturdy leaves that are very easy to wrap, so try some this spring if you see them in the market!
how to choose: Choose big but still tender leaves that are a bright, vivid green. If the leaves are stiff, it is still edible, but you may need to blanch them instead of using them fresh.
how to prepare: Wash them with clean cold running water, and get rid of woody stems if there are any. Keep the young and tender leaves for ssam.
how to eat: You can use gomchwi for ssam, as a salad green, as a vegetable side dish, in jangajji (장아찌, soy sauce pickle) or when simply cooking up greens.
how to store: If you want to enjoy gomchwi year round, simply blanch them in water with a pinch of salt (to keep the color bright), squeeze out unnecessary moisture, and layer flat leaf by leaf. Store in a airtight plastic bag and freeze. This way, you can enjoy the aroma and flavor of gomchwi even in the summer and fall.