Hamcho: Samphire, glasswort, sea asparagus
Travel along the southwest coast in summer and you may come across a bright green, succulent-like plant stretching upwards like a tiny tree from the mudflat. This is hamcho (함초, samphire or glasswort, Salicornia herbacea), a beach green once known only to locals and now popular across the South Korean peninsula. It’s known colloquially as tungtung-madi (퉁퉁마디), which literally means “chubby knuckles,” an apt description for its plump, segmented green fingers. Hamcho relatives can be found in North America, Europe, South Africa and Asia, and some Western sources call it “sea asparagus” or “sea beans,” so chances are you might be able to find it at your local farmer’s market as well. Let us know in the comments if you’ve seen hamcho in your area!
Hamcho’s most defining feature becomes apparent when you take a bite—it’s incredibly, naturally, salty. Hamcho is a type of halophyte, a salt-loving plant that thrives in (and requires) saline environments. Of all the world’s flowering plants, just 0.65% are halophytes, but this unusual category may also hold the future to farming as arable land becomes ever more scarce.
Once harvested from the wild, hamcho farming began in earnest here in Korea within the last 10 or 15 years. We visited Jeoeo-sae Hamcho Farm (저어새 함초 농장), located on Ganghwa Island, about an hour west of Seoul. It was a blazingly hot summer day, but the farm owner graciously took us out to the fields, which were low, muddy flats more akin to paddies. They seed the fields in fall, then pump in seawater from the ocean just over the embankment in winter. The young hamcho plants begin coming up in April, but it’s July and August when they’re ready for harvesting—and it’s all done by hand. You have to cut them (tearing by hand can bruise the tender shoots) and they’ll grow back within 20 days, though the farmers at Jeoeo-sae harvest just once a season to collect the fully-grown tender shoots. After summer, the hamcho plants turn a bright, brilliant scarlet and these fields of coral-like structures resemble a kind of beautiful, alien landscape.
In areas where hamcho grows wild, it’s used in folk medicine to counteract digestive ailments, from diarrhea to constipation, and is also said to be good for those with diabetes and high blood sugar.
Hamcho is better known in temple cuisine or health food circles here in Korea, so while most people will know it exists, it’s not something you buy very often, if at all. But thanks to the Bburi project, we had the chance to play around with this ingredient, and it turned out to be an incredibly fun and versatile green!
flavor profile: As you can imagine most beach greens might taste, the flavor profile of hamcho is quite minerally and salty. The first note is a green, minerally flavor, followed by an intense saltiness last. This stuff is pretty salty, so if you’re making any kind of sauce with hamcho, you won’t need any extra salt. Texture-wise, it has a very plump, fleshy crunchiness, almost like tiny fingers of aloe. Thanks to all that salt water it consumes, it’s said to contain over 90 different kinds of minerals, so you’ll get a lot of complex minerality (if you’re actually sensitive enough to taste all 90!).
how to choose: Look for hamcho with several knuckles and plump leaves on the stem. Fresher hamcho will be relatively stiff, not floppy, though overgrown hamcho will have woody, hard stems and will not make for pleasant eating.
how to eat:
Dried: As hamcho is considered a health food (good for digestion and full of fiber and minerals), people often dry it, grind it into a powder and take it as a health supplement. Sometimes it is mixed with salt and called hamcho sogeum (함초 소금, samphire salt). The salt form is actually one of the most common ways to use it in Korea and is pretty easy to find in most markets.
Fresh: Hamcho can be added to salads, dressed with any of your favorite oils and vinegar. But since it is quite salty already, mixing with other vegetables can help balance the flavors. Koreans also blanch hamcho and dress it with gochujang.
Hyoso (효소, enzyme syrup): In a large bowl, mix your fresh hamcho greens with sugar (1:1 ratio). Store this mix in a jar and let it ferment. The resulting syrup can be used as the base for a salty-sweet drink (when mixed with water/ice) or used in cooking.
recipe: hamcho japchae
Japchae should always have the five basic colors, so most people use spinach for the green color. Using hamcho instead creates a fun texture with bursts of salty flavor in each bite.
how to store: At -1°C to -2°C it will stay good for a month (thanks to that high salinity), and it will keep at average fridge temperature for about 15 days.