If you think about Korean food from the overall aspect of culture instead of types of food called Korean food, you will most certainly be reminded of a variety of Namul.
Namul refers to a combination of side dishes made from plants or vegetables collected from mountains or fields. It is also a generic term for edible wild plant materials. Namul is an important concept that represent a form of food and signifies a history of food culture of Korea.
Because Korea has many mountains, there were all kinds of naturally grown native wild edible greens and field vegetables since ancient times. Wild herbs and vegetables were food ingredients that were abundant around us and could be obtained from nature in a natural way. Moreover, through the process of drying for preservation, they became good food reserves that allowed people to have meals even in the winter without much worry for food ingredients.
Come to think of it, there is rarely a food ingredient in the food culture of our country comparable to Namul that has been constantly consumed by people for such a long time without any changes to its core function. What makes Namul even more special is that it carries a sense of primitiveness transmitted from the process of collection in the wild and yet is consumed by all in such a natural manner to this day.
This long-standing familiarity of Namul, however, seems to have worked as a disadvantage to its status in Korean food. Perhaps Namul is inclusive of fermented vegetable foods represented by kimchi. But I think that the way Namul is perceived merely as side dishes made of wild plants or vegetables depreciates the true value and meaning of Namul deeply rooted in the food culture of Korea.
Recently, many people are experiencing Nordic Cuisine, a style of food from the Northern Europe. In fact, Nordic Cuisine has already reached its peak in the overseas and left a great mark in the overall food culture. It created a new food genre with a naturalistic style of cuisine contrasting European food, represented by French and Italian. But when we think about it, the food customs of Northern Europe trying to accept the ingredients from nature as they are and preserve the natural taste as much as possible is no different from our attitude of handling Namul. It is safe to presume that our people has enjoyed Namul collected in the mountains for a very long time considering that, among the ingredients for side dishes we consume today, there are many cases of medicinal herbs recorded in Donguibogam: Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine by Heo Jun. As such, Namul is deeply rooted in our culture.
As a chef, I have always tried to explore new and beautiful food ingredients. And yet, I have also believed that it would be a self-contradiction if I were to avoid familiar domestic materials and use only ingredients grown mainly for the purpose of beautiful appearance or obtained from foreign seeds on limited conditions, simply because I am offering fine-dining. I think the real task for me and other chefs today is to discover food ingredients that are easily found around us, unique to our food culture and has been shared by many generations throughout our history, and to develop new recipes using them.
Accordingly, SOIGNÉ decided to concentrate on Namul in the 17th episode following the previous episode on Old Cookbooks. In this new episode, we feature Namul, one of our food culture, which is easily accessible and is often regarded not special because it is too accessible and familiar. It might be impossible to grasp unknown aspects of Namul and create innovative dishes that go beyond conventional cooking methods because the cooking methods for Namul are completely established and most native Koreans think they can cook Namul to some extent.
However, our goal in this episode is to re-illuminate the value of Namul by stepping away from treating Namul merely as materials for side dishes and instead focusing on the unique characteristics of respective ingredients, and to present the direction for our food cultural heritage.
The gift of the mountains and fields and the link between man and nature, Namul. The breath of the wild is blowing in the air.