Sometimes, over here at bburi kitchen, we’re guilty of romanticizing the past. “Our ancestors ate so healthily,” we’ll sigh. Or: “They used up every last scrap! Nothing went to waste back then.” While neither of us would actually trade our modern lives for the hardships of years gone by, some older ways of eating are worth revisiting. Back when fresh vegetables in winter were unheard of, people would bring out their stores of dried vegetables. One of the most plentiful of these was shiraegi (시래기), dried radish leaves that have the texture and sound of crinkled crepe paper. Shiraegi is low in calories, high in fiber and also contains calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Though it’s far less common today, you’ll still find packages of shiraegi in grocery stores, and can often see it hanging outside of homes in older neighborhoods.
Shiraegi is the kind of ingredient that makes Koreans think nostalgically of the past, and of winter, and of warm, nourishing soups. Poet Gong Gwang-kyu writes about a city office worker who goes to a little restaurant in an alley, and sees some shiraegi hanging on the wall. He “takes one handful and rubs it against his nose,” smelling the smells of his hometown, the dried leaves recalling the “rustling of his old mother’s shriveled hands.”
Shiraegi-making begins at the fall gimjang, when families use massive amounts of cabbages and radishes to make their kimchi for the year. The leftover green bits aren’t thrown away: the outer cabbage leaves are set aside to dry and are call woogeoji (우거지), while the radish leaves are hung up in a well-ventilated place out of the sun and are called shiraegi.
flavor profile: Dried 시래기 has the smell of fall leaves, with a hint of dried tobacco. When not fully cooked, it has quite a woody and chewy texture when it is not fully cooked or un-peeled, but it gets softer as you cook it longer. When cooked, it has tender leaves and slightly chewy stems, and a mild, woody green flavor that you could compare to collard greens, though it’s less strong.
how to choose: When buying dried shiraegi, avoid yellowed leaves. Shiraegi flavor and texture depends on when it is harvested and how it is dried. Good shiraegi should come from radishes harvested after the first frost, but yellow leaves means it was harvested before the first frost and will be tough. Also, shiraegi should be dried away from direct sun so that it can retain chlorophyll. Look for green leaves and avoid stems that are too large. You can also buy pre-soaked and peeled shiraegi in bags at the market—keep it in the fridge and use it within three days.
how to prepare: Submerge your dried shiraegi in a big pot of lukewarm water overnight. Depending on how dry your shiraegi is, you can soak it for up to 24 hours. Try to change out the water two or three times while it’s soaking. When it’s ready, the stems and leaves should be somewhat plump but not bloated (see photo below).
After soaking, rinse well in cold running water. Boil the shiraegi in a good amount of water for 1 to 2 hours until soft, and rinse again in cold running water. If the stem is thick and big, check to see how fibrous it is. You may need to peel off a thin layer of skin from the stems.
If you’re feeling lazy and are tempted to skip this process, be warned: shiraegi can turn out fibrous, woody and chewy even when cooked, so be ready to put your heart into it!
how to eat: Koreans make porridge (죽), soup (국), rice (밥), namul (나물) and even rice cakes (떡) with shiraegi. You can also braise your fish (생선조림) with it.
recipe: Shiraegi namul (braised shiraegi with dried anchovies)
how to store: Dried shiraegi can be stored for up to 3 years in a cool and dry place. If you want to prep ahead of time, you can soak, boil and freeze them in smaller amounts.