Saturday, October 8, 2011

Perilla: Food of the Gods

Don’t ask why, but in mid-February, 2010, I left the vegan reforestation eco-commune in southern India where I had been living for about four months and returned to Daegu for a second stint.  One day, I was living in a thatch hut, planting trees under a sweltering sun, rewarded for my labor with daily doses of fresh pineapple, papaya and guava; the next, I was trudging around in dirty snow worried I might have frostbite.  I was also wondering whether I’d be able to sustain my veganism here, given that, while India is known as a vegetarian paradise (restaurants there proudly paint labels such as “ vegetarian”, or “pure veg” right under their names), Korea is well-known for serving up stuff as far-out as dog meat and live octopodes.

It was my first night back: empty apartment, empty fridge, empty stomach.   My friend and I stepped out of my new little concrete box in Bokheon-dong and into the piercing wind.  I didn’t know the immediate area at all and prayed that we could find somewhere serving something tasty, warm, and not too meaty before the cold could settle into our bones .  Now, I’m not one throw around words like “destiny” lightly, but it turns out that within three minutes we found a restaurant serving what I’m convinced is the most delicious, nutritious, filling, and off-the-radar vegetarian delight in all of the country: perilla noodles.  
Imagine: a giant bowl of thick, formidably chewy noodles, in a sauce that reminds you of Alfredo, only slightly thinner and minus the greasiness, indigestion, and regret.   Steamy, creamy, and oh-so-filling, the broth is made by adding powdered perilla seeds into a savory stock (most restaurants include meat in the broth, but all you need to make a purely vegan version at home is a bit of vegetable boullion);  the perilla seeds are packed full of good stuff like plant protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and E, and dietary fiber, all of which are important nutrients to have in your diet, vegetarian or not.       
If you've ever smelled it, then you've probably also guessed: the Perilla plant itself (들깨 / Deulkkae in Korean) is a member of the mint family.  It seems like there are about a million uses for every part of the plant.  The leaves in raw form can be used to wrap up meat, rice, and garlic and send them down the old alimentary canal; they can be blended together with sunflower seeds and olive oil to make pesto; they can be battered and fried to make mini-pancakes; or they can simply be sliced up and thrown in a salad to add a little bite.  You can slathe them in red pepper powder and make them into  "perilla leaf kimchi" (깻잎김치), which is, contrary to popular belief, not actually made with sesame leaves.  You can quickly roast the seeds and them to salads or side dishes for a little extra crunch and nutritional boost.   Powdered seeds make for an amazing broth in their own right, but can also be added to soybean paste-based soups to mellow out the saltiness, to stir-fried tofu or vegetables to make rich, hearty side dishes, or, for the intrepid among us, to pancakes and breads to sneak in a little protein and increase fluffiness.  Perilla oil (들기름) is widely available and is great for low-heat stir-fries.   And, if you don’t mind tempting the OD fates, you can mix perilla oil and perilla powder into a rich dressing and drown your favorite salad in it.
You can find perilla-broth noodles (들깨칼국수) at many noodle shops, particularly now that the summer is over and iced bean-broth noodles (콩국수) are off the menus.  Grain/bean/seed stalls at traditional markets usually have the seeds (들깨 씨앗, or just 들깨 for short) by the bucketful, and the oil and powder (들깨가루) are available at most of the organic shops around Daegu,as well as, of course, at the megastores.  Ah, and one more thing: Deulkkae is traditionally known in Korea for helping people fight off colds and sore throats. Go find yourself a source before the winter sets in!

You can find exact locations for the organic shops and for the restaurant that whipped up the above (hint: it's not far from KNU) on the Green Guide, our map of all the eco-goodness around town.  

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