When I was eleven, my family moved into our very first house. As the backyard had been ill-maintained, many of the women from our Korean church volunteered to help pull weeds. But seeing the yard, they came to what I thought was an odd conclusion: the tall, invasive shrubbery with the ugly yellow flowers that I had been trampling were actually edible.
The women claimed it a waste to mow them away when they could be harvested for future meals. So, for hours under the West Texas sun, my mom and her friends bent down in the shrubbery, carefully foraging these plants, setting their stalks aside in large bowls to cut, wash, and dry.
Admittedly, I was embarrassed. I felt like there was something strangely foreign and perhaps primitive in Asian women foraging for food that was so obviously weeds. They received curious looks from the men we hired to rebuild our fence, and I remember hoping they didn’t consider me to be part of their harvesting crew. In the following weeks, my family ate those yellow flowers—goldamcho in Korean or Caragana in Latin—as a crunchy and mildly sweet snack or cut up their petals and stems to make Korean pancakes, or jeon. I did my best not to enjoy them.
As I grew older, my mom and her friends continued to point out random shrubs and weeds wherever we went. Scattered on the sides of a hiking trail was sook, or Japanese mugwort, which is traditionally used in Korean rice cakes. A neighborhood pond was covered in lily pads and blossoming pink flowers, from which we harvested lotus roots. My sisters’ piano teacher often brought over donnamul muchim, or stringy stonecrop, from her front lawn. Eventually, I realized the world was edible. Weeds were no longer weeds. Shrubs were no longer shrubs. I had learned to see it.
Although foraging is often associated with images of primitivity or hunter-gatherer societies, the concept is not as outdated as many believe. While it is rarely a primary source of acquiring food, people still forage the areas around them for plants common to their cultural dishes. After all, food is an important way for people to bond with one another, and one of the primary ways in which people connect is through culture. However, it is not just the meal itself that speaks to the importance of culture; where the food is sourced and how it is prepared also points to one’s heritage. As my mom showed me, foraging is a way in which people explore their cultural identities and share it with others.
Most of the plants I’ve mentioned are common to many areas of the world, as they can survive in extreme temperatures. Foragers find Japanese mugwort almost anywhere, from roadsides to fields and riverbanks to mountains. Stringy stonecrop, an invasive succulent, is native to Asian countries from Thailand through Japan. It often grows between cracks in the ground or along footpaths. In short, you’ll find many of these plants all around you, so long as you can identify them. Pluck away. They won’t be missed. After that, the creative world of cuisine is yours to explore.
To give you a head start, one of my favorite mom-prepared foods is sook tteok, or mugwort rice cakes. They are commonly eaten around Korean Chuseok, a harvesting holiday, but you can enjoy them any time of the year. (Bburi Kitchen offers a wonderful recipe.) Sook has an interesting, almost grassy flavor but tastes bitter to some and may take getting used to. It is well known in Korean society for its medicinal benefits, particularly in fighting stomach and intestinal problems, making sook tteok a popular and healthy food.
Another popular Korean side dish is dotorimuk, or acorn jelly, which is a chilled and refreshing side dish made from, as the name suggests, acorn. No, these are not special Korean acorns. They are the regular brown nuts that you see scattered all over the ground in the fall. You can find this jelly pre-made or in a powdered form in Asian stores, but making the dish from scratch is a fun way to interact with the environment and make use of fallen acorns. (New York Times Cooking gives instructions in making this dish similar to how we do at home.)
And lastly, dallae, or Korean wild chives, is a popular spring green that grows wild in fields and on mountains and has a similar appearance and flavor to regular chives. It is usually eaten simply, doused in soy sauce and used as a dip for Korean pancakes or added to Korean stews and soups. (Chef Daniel Oh provides all the steps for preparing fresh dallae.) Because of their mildly sweet and onion-like taste, their flavor is easy to adjust to.
Foraging allows people to learn about their own cultures and other cultures as well. That’s been true for chef Iulian Fortu, owner of Arcadia Venture, an online company based in the Washington, D.C., area, that forages local wild plants and sells it to curious eaters. (At the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he prepared chanterelle dumplings with green plum sauce from foraged ingredients.)
Fortu recommends that people, foragers or not, “shift their mindset regarding what is and isn’t food.” Some people may be hesitant to pluck and eat a supposed weed out of the dirt, especially when they could buy the same item packaged in clean and shiny plastic at the grocery store. But keeping an open mind and palate can reveal to you a world of flavor and culture.
As Fortu says, when it comes to foraging, “More than a knowledge aspect, it is a willingness to learn.” Opening yourself up to the edible plant life around you is the first step. Knowledge comes as a result of this eagerness to be aware of your environment and the culture hiding within it.
Ava Chin, author of memoir Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, demonstrates this eagerness through her own experiences in foraging. Although Chin grew up around foragers, she didn’t find personal interest in it until she was an adult. She recalls that one day, she spotted wood ear mushrooms growing in an unassuming place in New York City, where she grew up. Afterward, she began seeing them everywhere. Remembering that her grandfather used these mushrooms frequently in the family meals he prepared, she was fascinated that such a staple ingredient had always existed right in front of her eyes.
“My grandfather was the big chef in our family,” she says. “Like a lot of Chinese people, he really believed that food is our medicine. I think that’s true for a lot of cultures. I used to follow him around the aisles of the supermarkets. He used to point out various ingredients, saying, ‘Oh, this is really good for headaches. That’s really good for when you’re a woman.’ He really imparted this knowledge to me.”
For Chin, foraging became a way to treasure the relationship she had with her family in childhood. Through this lifestyle, she fondly remembers the meals her grandfather prepared and the warmth of his presence: “It was a way of being connected with my grandfather all over again. And by extension, this food that he made expressed a kind of Chinese-ness and Chinese culture that was imparted in my family life.”
But more than her new perspective on cultural connection, Chin says that foraging impacted her on a larger level. Because of its meditative qualities, foraging opened her eyes. “It’s given me a way of being connected with the seasons and also taught real lessons in being present.” Now, Chin is able to slow down a fast-moving world and, through food, reflect on her childhood, her relationships, and her identity as a Chinese American woman.
Inspired by Chin’s story, I went on a sunset foraging adventure with my mom in our home in Southern Virginia. We didn’t have to walk very far. Our backyard is a forest in itself, home to a variety of wildlife. My mom eagerly pointed out different plants around us, happy to share her knowledge and love for the outdoors. She desperately wanted to collect dureup, the shoots of the Korean Angelica-tree, a common side dish in Korea. By the time it was dark, we found only one dead tree, its thorny bark offering no greenery for harvesting. However, ten minutes later, we ran into a small plant that sprang from the ground with long, jagged leaves.
What I normally would have stepped on without a thought was suddenly sseumbagui, or toothed ixeridium. That evening, we used the plant as ssam, which literally translates into a “wrap” that holds rice and meat. After my mom and I prepared the food, we gathered as a family, all six of us, and ate together.
I had found preparing the sseumbagui simple; all it needed was to be washed and dried. Foraging for it had been easy too, and, as Chin would maintain, exciting and peaceful. Under a pink Virginia sky, fallen leaves crunching under our every step and a glistening pond to our right, searching for edible plants was incredibly calming. It was a much different experience than going to the grocery store, with its clamoring crowds, aisles filled with often expensive and inorganically grown foods. For my mom, and so many others, a humble backyard could become a grocery store.
Over the years, I’ve come to better appreciate the natural world around me and the food that it has to offer. More than that, I’ve learned to recognize a hidden Korean culture, one that reveals itself through intentional exploration of plant life and the unity of our Korean community. Through the church members, my sisters’ piano teacher, and my mom, I see how much a culture of food can bring people together. Eleven-year-old me would be surprised to hear how excited I am to venture out and see how far this relationship can go. Sometimes all it takes is a step out into my backyard.
Gloria Koo is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior at Vanderbilt University. She is majoring in anthropology and English and minoring in cinema and media arts.