A typical Korean meal is rarely ever without a side dish of mu, the versatile white radish,
which may well be called the country’s vegetable for all seasons. Mu is loved for its flavor, which goes well with rice,
and has long been an important source of vitamin C in winter when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. These days,
the white radish is available year-round, but the woldongmu (winter radish), grown on islands in
the southern sea where the winters are relatively mild, is the tastiest.
Mu is one of Koreans’ favorite vegetables.The European red radish is eaten raw and used in salads, while in Japan, white radish, called daikon, is used as an ingredient for such dishes as boiled fish, buckwheat soba, and miso soup, and is pickled as well; grated raw daikon is used as a garnish for sashimi. The Korean white radish is cultivated and carefully harvested since every part of the plant is used, from the taproot to the green tops. Mu can be found on the Korean dining table as kimchi, salad, or a variety of side dishes; it’s an essential ingredient in soups, stews, and also for making a base broth for various dishes.
If dishes made with siraegi (dried radish leaves) and mumallaengi (thin-sliced, dried radish) are taken into account, hardly a day passes without Koreans eating mu in some ways. Radish is rich in amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch to aid digestion; this might be an age-old wisdom passed down among Koreans through generations, whose staple grain is rice.
Muguk (radish soup) is a clear
soup favored by Koreans. It is
made with slices of beef and radish,
stir-fried in sesame oil, then
cooked with water and Koreanstyle
soy sauce, and seasoned
with salt and a dash of black
The Ubiquitous ‘Winter Ginseng’
Up till the 1970s, when greenhouse farming was not yet developed and vegetables were hard to grow in winter, people would store the radish harvested in the fall deep underground to prevent its freezing; this served as their supply of the vegetable throughout the winter. Prepared as a side dish
or eaten raw, although not as sweet as fruits, radish was a delicacy for winter night snacking with its mild, refreshing taste. The radish eaten as a snack
during the winter was called dongsam, or “winter ginseng.” There is a reason why this ubiquitous vegetable was compared to the precious herb.
Although it does not have as much medicinal benefits as ginseng, the radish then was a vital source of vitamin C during the winter time.
Radish is now grown in all seasons, with its annual production exceeding that of any other vegetable. In particular, the winter radish that can now be grown in moderate cold temperatures of winter is prized for being the tastiest. In the southern regions of Korea, the temperatures during the height of winter rarely drop below zeroeven at night. The taste of radish gets better as it grows during nights with temperatures between zero and 10 degrees Celcius. That’s because the starch produced through photosynthesis during the day changes quickly into sugar to prepare for the night, a survival strategy of the radish, which increases its sweetness.
Large-scale production of winter radish and its distribution started in earnest in the mid-1990s. Jeju Island is well-known for its flavorful winter radish. “Jeju woldongmu” has been exported to America, cleanwashed and packed in vinyl bags, for the past ten years. Farther north, radish is grown during the hot summer season in the high mountains of Gangwon Province, in the eastern part of Korea, at altitudes higher than 600 meters above sea level. Because vegetables either stop growing or become overgrown when the temperature is above 30˚C, the radish will not be as succulent and sweet in summer. Thus, summer radish is grown in the highlands, where the night temperatures drop noticeably.
The plump radish root freshly
pulled from the ground is crunchy
and sweet. The green tops are
dried and boiled in soybean paste
stew (jjigae) or prepared as a
seasoned vegetable dish (namul).
Yeolmu Guksu: Refreshing Summertime Treat
Summer is the season of yeolmu, the sweet baby radish taproots and their green tops. Harvested after a short growing time, it is known for being delectably crunchy and rich in flavor. Yeolmu guksu is a refreshing chilled soup made with thin noodles called somyeon and chilled anchovy stock flavored with yeolmu water kimchi. It’s an inexpensive delicacy enjoyed as a snack at home or as an appetizer in the summer at restaurants and eateries everywhere. Sipping the cold sweet-sour broth between chewy mouthfuls of yeolmu kimchi and somyeon, one can forget the summer heat, if only for a moment.
The eponymous Korean cold noodle dish naengmyeon brings the height of flavor and texture of handmade summer noodles and pickled radish together in a bowl of icy broth. With buckwheat noodles in the broth of beef, pork, or chicken, this traditional noodle dish is served with thin cucumber slices, cooked meat, and a boiled egg cut in half — together with pickled radish. This indispensable garnish is made of thinsliced radish pickled in salt, chili pepper powder, vinegar, and sugar. There is a reason for this traditional way of consuming buckwheat noodles with radish. The toxic components salycilamine and benzilamine from the buckwheat’s skin can be neutralized by the enzymes in radish.
Summer is the season of yeolmu, the sweet baby radish taproots and their green tops. Harvested after
a short growing time, it is known for being delectably crunchy and rich in flavor.
Kkakdugi, Easy Radish Kimchi
Kkakdugi, using radish as the primary
ingredient, is the easiest kind of kimchi to
make. Cabbage kimchi, with its so many
ingredients and complicated preparation,
is challenging for me, but I’m happy
to make kkakdugi when my 13-year-old
daughter wishes to have it on the table. I
can just buy a radish in the store nearby, cut
it into cubes of 2–3 centimeters, sprinkle
some salt, and leave in a bowl for about 2
hours. The salt melts into the radish, which
becomes crunchy. I then add some fish
sauce, pickled shrimp, chili pepper powder,
and sticky rice starch (this last ingredient
can be skipped to save time). Adding chives
gives the kkakdugi a deeper taste. The mixture
can be left to ferment for two days and
then eaten. For meat soups, such as samgyetang
(whole chicken and ginseng soup),
galbitang (beef rib soup), and seolleongtang
(ox bone soup), well-fermented kkakdugi
is just right in place of cabbage kimchi.
Since radish helps in the digestion of fatty
food, it is a perfect combination for good
taste and health.
An interesting and unusual variant of
kimchi is radish kimchi with bolak (rockfish),
a specialty of Tongyeong in South
Gyeongsang Province and other coastal
areas of the South Sea. A whole rockfish
(Sebastes inermis) is fermented in a batch
of radish kimchi. At the beginning it smells
fishy, but after about two months of fermentation,
the fishy smell disappears and
a unique odor from the aged fish protein
will stimulate your appetite. The radish and
bolak together on a plate may look rather
unattractive at first, but the savory taste will
have you raving about its novelty. The stiff
fish bones are softened in the fermentation
process, and the fish meat becomes
firm, so it is like eating a gourmet fish
meal, not kimchi. A bowl of warm steamed
rice will quickly disappear with this special
kimchi. One can try this dish at a restaurant
called Chungmujip, which specializes
in Tongyeong dishes, in Eulji-ro, central
Whichever of the many mu dishes best
suits your taste, the radish, a vital ingredient
of Korean cooking, promises an abundance
of culinary delights.
For dongchimi (radish water kimchi), small roundish
radishes are selected, cleaned and seasoned only with
salt and a few aromatics such as whole garlic, sliced
ginger, chives, and red chili. When well fermented,
the radish is cut into bite-size pieces and served with
the chilled liquid. In the past, the crock containing this
kimchi was buried in the yard to be eaten all winter.
Kkakdugi (diced radish kimchi) is made with radish cut
into bite-size cubes, which are sprinkled with salt and
left out for a while before mixing with fish sauce, pickled
shrimp, chili powder, sticky rice starch, and chopped
chives. The well-fermented kkakdugi is considered the
perfect side dish for various kinds of meat soup.