Omija: The five-flavor berry
One of Korea’s most unique fruits, the omija (오미자, or Schisandra chinensis) berry, contains five distinct, fragrant flavors.
Most of us up here in Seoul are familiar with the dried version of omija, which looks a little bit like a small dried cranberry—it’s a deep red that borders on black in places and you can often find it at traditional markets. But it’s the fresh omija that are being harvested right now, in early to mid-September—these are bright red berries that hang in bunches from woody vines. They mostly grow in the mountains, from around 400m to 700m above sea level. The region of Mungyeong, in North Gyeongsang Province, is especially known for their omija, grown there since the Joseon Dynasty era.
The word “omija” means “five flavored fruit” when its hanja (Chinese character roots, much like Latin roots in English) are broken down. Oh means “five,” mi means “flavor,” and ja means “a son,” from the character that can refer specifically to men’s sexual stamina. Other fruits like bokbunja (복분자) and gugija (구기자) also use the same suffix because it’s believed that they give a special kind of energy to men. These days, the name might not be quite as fitting—omija is often marketed as a kind of health drink or tea for women in cafes around Seoul, perhaps because the acidity of the berry is said to be good for tightening face muscles and getting rid of wrinkles.
Omija was originally used as an ingredient in Korean herbal medicine. It’s not sweet enough to eat off the vine (even the birds avoid it) so it was typically dried. Occasionally, it was served to the royal household as a kind of tea—the omija berries were steeped in cold water, and then this tisane was mixed with honey. Recently, in the last 10 to 15 years, omija has become extremely popular and production has grown enormously.
One of the biggest drivers in the rise of omija consumption has been the promotion of omija cheong (오미자청), or omija syrup. People can make omija cheong at home by layering equal parts fresh (or dried) omija berries with refined sugar in a jar and allowing this mixture to age over the course of a year. This results in a delicious sour and sweet syrup that is often used to make cold drinks during the hot summer. Making a hot tea with this syrup is also quite popular. Whether or not the increased sugar consumption is such good thing is an issue for another post…
Omija as an ingredient is an interesting case—it’s been used in herbal medicine for so long, but with renewed interest in the ingredient, a lot of creativity is being applied to this tiny berry. Of particular interest is the fresh omija berry, which is rarely sold but contains the most fascinating range of flavors. Read on in the chef’s notes for more on omija flavors and uses.
Omija’s five flavors exist in layers, starting with the skin. When you bite the skin of the fresh berry, an unexpectedly powerful tartness and sourness pops out, followed by the hint of saltiness and sweetness in the flesh. But the flavor doesn’t stop there. The finale is the seed. Chewing the hard little seed is unusual, but we guarantee that it’s worthwhile. The peppery spice and bitterness that pops out like fireworks in your mouth were surprisingly good. We asked if they’d tried to make the seeds into a commercially-viable spice, but apparently it’s too oily. It would be interesting for further consideration, anyhow…
how to eat:
Steep in cold water. If you steep it in hot water over 45 degrees Celsius, it can bring out too much bitterness and spiciness. Of course, “room temperature” is different in different seasons: In spring and fall you’ll steep for 12 hours, in summer for 8 hours, and in winter, for 24 hours. Then, strain the water. You can add sweeteners like sugar syrup or honey to either the cold or hot or cold drinks.
Dilute with any kind of plain liquid (water, sparkling water, perhaps even the liquor of your choosing). The ratio depends on your preferences, but most people go with 1 part omija cheong to 3 parts water.
how to choose: A good dried omija will have a reddish-black color. Thin-skinned berries present the five flavors more distinctly than thick-skinned fruits. Check the origin; alpine cultivation products tastes better.
We visited the farms of Mr. Kim Sang-su and Ms. Park Kyung-hee and found their omija to be really high quality (plus, they’re really kind people). You can order their pesticide-free omija here (Korean only).
recipe: To make omija cheong (오미자청, omija syrup), layer 1 part sugar with 1 part fresh omija berries in an airtight jar. To be safe, especially in warmer areas, use 1.2 parts sugar to 1 part fruit.
how to store:
Fresh berries: Fresh berries can be stored in an airtight container for over a week; however, people usually don’t eat omija fresh—they tend to preserve them in sugar by making a cheong (see above).
Dried berries: Put them in an airtight container or tightly-sealed plastic bag. They’ll last longer in the freezer, but if you don’t have freezer space, a cool, dark, dry cabinet will also work.