Seomcho: sweet winter coastal spinach

Spinach has long been eaten in Korea (some accounts say it came over from China during the Three Kingdoms Period) but it’s first on record in 1577. Korean spinach is a little different from Western spinach. It has smaller, thicker leaves and can tolerate Korea’s harsh winters. (In contrast, most of the summer spinach grown in Korea is a tender, long-stemmed Western variety.) In the last century, a coastal variety of Korean spinach has become especially popular. It’s commonly called either “seomcho” (섬초, island green) or “pohangcho” (포항초) after the west coast city of Pohang, where it first appeared during Japanese colonial rule. This little spinach is known for being small and stunted but oh-so-sweet. Coast areas often have sandy soil that drains well, an ideal condition for spinach. Fierce winter winds also whip up the coast, forcing seomcho to huddle down close to the earth. It’s actually the cold weather that makes seomcho so tasty—to protect against damaging freezes, the plant sends sugars up into its leaves, lowering the freezing temperature. Sweet and simple science.

This winter green is often sold under a few different names at the market, based on where it’s from. “Pohangcho,” (from Gyeongsang Province), “seomcho” (from South Jeolla Province) and Bigeumcho (from Bigeum Island) are government-protected appellations that refer to this vegetable.

Chef’s notes

Seomcho has fairly tough and thick leaves, but once you lightly blanch or sauté it, it loses all its toughness. Compared to summer spinach, pohangcho is super sweet and nutty. It can be used just like other regular varieties of spinach, but it’s just 30 times more delicious!

how to choose: To select good pohangcho/seomcho/bigeumcho: Try to get the shortest stems and the widest and flattest bunches you can find. The shorter the stems are, the sweeter the flavors. Also look for a blush of red in the stems, another sign of sweetness.

recipe: Seomcho namul (섬초 나물, winter spinach salad)

how to store: Wrap them in a damp paper towel or newspaper and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

One last serious comment from this chef about this short and chubby spinach: It will change your whole concept of spinach. It is SO damn good!

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