Naengi (냉이, shepherd’s purse) is an unassuming green that’s easy to miss when it first creeps up out of the frozen earth. Upon closer examination, you’ll notice a thick, white root attached to a broad crown of deep-green leaves that resemble nubby scales. It’s not exactly pretty—and it’s also considered a “proto-carnivorous” plant: While it doesn’t actively lure in prey, the germinating seeds release a sticky substance, trapping tiny roundworms and protozoa whose nutrients it then absorbs. This tough little troll of a plant is common around the world and will grow just about anywhere, often in fields that lay fallow throughout winter. Look for low-lying patches of green and its small, radial bunches of leaves.
Don’t forget to get as much of the root as you can; it’s tasty, and full of protein. As the first to push its way up through the frozen earth, Koreans say that naengi contains the most energy of all the spring greens, and it’s perhaps the most symbolic of the season. A member of the mustard family, naengi takes on a bit of spice as it grows, but Koreans tend to eat the young shoots in spring, when the flavors are mild and unmistakably naengi-like. Boil some up for any Korean, and they’ll tell you that the round, green scent is the smell of spring.
Naengi is my favorite spring green. When I was young and lived outside of Seoul, it was one of the most common greens out the field. I’d follow my grandmother out to the banks of the creek with her spoon and basket and help her pick naengi. Now, living in the concrete jungle of Seoul, I have to settle for greenhouse-grown naengi from the market, which doesn’t quite taste the same. Try to forage yours if you can, but greenhouse-grown is still better than no naengi at all!
how to eat: The flowers make a lovely garnish and the seeds can be used like basil seeds or chia seeds, though the leaves and roots are the most commonly eaten part here in Korea. We often add them to soups or make them into a muchim (무침, blanched and seasoned salad). Of course, you can get creative—I really love making pesto with naengi!
recipe: Naengi-guk (냉이국, shepherd’s purse soup)
how to clean: I’m not going to lie, naengi can be a pain in the ass to clean. Fortunately, most naengi you get from the market these days has been cleaned ahead of time, though it still manages to hide away some dirt in the roots and base of the leaves. The easiest way to get it all off is to soak it for half an hour or so first, then scrub the roots well, maybe 3 to 4 times.
how to store: Just as you’d do with other greens, don’t rinse naengi if storing it for later. Instead, wrap it in newspaper or a paper towel and place in an airtight container. Never leave your greens in the black plastic bag that you get from the market—that’s the fastest way to ruin them! If you want to enjoy naengi year-round, blanch it, don’t squeeze out the moisture, and place it into a small, airtight plastic bag and freeze.