Ssuk (쑥, pronounced “sook”) is another leafy green that heralds the arrival of spring. In English, it’s often called “mugwort” along with a group of other related species, and shares their pungent aroma and medicinal benefits. There are over 30 varieties of ssuk in Korea that grow everywhere from river banks to roadsides, mountain tops to fields. The kind you’ll find most often in markets for cooking and eating is just plain ssuk, Artemisia princeps Pampan, a delicate pile of thin leaves that are bright green on one side and covered in a fuzzy silver down on the other. Crush a leaf between your fingers and the air is instantly filled with its pungent, herbal scent.
Ssuk has always been known in Korean folklore as one of the herbs behind the creation of the first Korean dynasty. Bear with us, the story is short: A long time ago, Hwanung, the son of the Lord of Heaven, came down to live on the earth. He’d had enough of staring down at the trees and mountains—he wanted to live there. Two creatures, a bear and a tiger, both wished to become human and prayed to Hwanung for this to happen. But Hwanung, it seems, wanted to put them to the test first. He gave them some garlic and some ssuk and said, “If you can stay in a cave eating this and nothing else for 100 days, you will become human.” So they shut themselves in with nothing but the spicy garlic and pungent ssuk. After 21 days, the tiger had had enough, and stalked out, lashing her tail with irritation. The patient bear, however, turned into a beautiful woman, married Hwanung, and had a son named Dangun, who founded the first Korean dynasty, Gojoseon.
It’s fitting that the patient, long-suffering bear became the mother of the Korean people—say what you will about the “bbali bbali” (fast, fast!) culture of Seoul, but endurance and determination are embedded into the fiber of Korean character. When the long winters ended and spring finally came, the taste of ssuk (especially ssuk-guk, ssuk soup) was the fresh taste of reward.
Medicinal varieties of ssuk have long been known to be particularly helpful for women—its medicinal properties are said to be good for menstruation pains and flow, as well as warming the body. (In fact, the Latin name for the genus, Artemisia, is a reference to the Ancient Greek goddess of the moon and of women.) You’ll often find ssuk added to herbal baths in traditional bathhouses, and it’s a key ingredient in ddeumjil (뜸질), or moxibustion. Dried ssuk is said to be a good mosquito repellent when burned.
Though ssuk is best known as a spring ingredient, it can be dried or frozen and used year-round, especially for songpyeon (송편), the rice cakes made for the fall harvest holiday Chuseok. Sonja remembers: “During my first year back in Korea, I went down to the countryside to celebrate Chuseok with my family. We sat around a big bowl of emerald green dough, made from rice flour pounded with flecks of ssuk, pulling out bits and wrapping up treasures of seeds, beans, nuts and honey inside. Afterwards, my aunt steamed them with pine needles, opening the lid to a fragrant rush of steam and handing me a piping hot, fresh songpyeon. That’s a taste you don’t forget.”
The first memory of spring that comes to me is digging up ssuk with my grandmother. At the end of the day, a full basket of ssuk often led to making aromatic ssuk guk (soup), or one of my favorite spring foods, ssuk tteok (rice cake). This freshly made ssuk tteok has a slightly rough texture and you can feel the fibers from the leaves as you bite down. Now I’m grown up and whenever I miss my grandma, I buy ssuk tteok, but it never tastes the same in the city.
flavor profile: If you chew on the raw greens, the first flavor note you get is a slight grassiness, almost celery even, followed by a mint or eucalyptus type of herbal pungency. Lastly, there’s a slight bitterness afterwards, which disappears when it is cooked. Cooking doesn’t erase ssuk’s defining herbal fragrance, however.
how to choose: Ssuk comes out from early spring but April is the best time for the best flavor. After the 5th of May (단오, Dano) by the lunar calendar, or late spring, Koreans tend to avoid picking ssuk because it develops more bitter flavor. When you choose ssuk, choose young and tender leaves—ssuk loses its strength pretty quickly, so don’t worry if the leaves are slightly floppy at the market (of course, avoid wilted leaves). Leaves that are green on the front fuzzy grey on the back are good to choose.
how to prepare: Get rid of yellowish or wilted leaves, as well as any long and woody stems. But if the stem is short and tender enough, you can use them as well.
how to eat: You can make ssuk jeon (쑥전, savory pancakes) and ssuk twigim (쑥튀김, deep fried ssuk), but the most common way to eat it is making ssuk guk (쑥국, soup) or tteok (떡, rice cake).
ssuk guk (쑥국, ssuk soup)
how to store: Ssuk is very delicate and hard to keep fresh for long, so blanch quickly and do not squeeze out any moisture. Put it in a plastic bag and freeze it in that soupy condition. Then, when you defrost it later, it will keep its freshly-blanched condition.