Culinary Culture of Korea

Wormwood Carries the History of the Korean Nation

From olden times, the Korean ancestors have widely used many natural resources on the earth in their dietary life and treatment of diseases.

Wormwood is a perennial herb of the family Compositae, and grows well on the mountains and fields in warm areas. This plant is deeply associated with the customs and life of the Korean people for thousands of years.

A mountain pass thickly covered with wormwood named after it is located in Kangdong County of Pyongyang. Kubin-ri is not far away from it.

Kubin-ri is named so from the legendary tale that in ancient times nine chiefs of tribe placed under the control of Tangun, the founding father of Ancient Joson, the first state of the Korean nation, were received there. At that time, one of the chiefs cured his chronic disease with the help of wormwood growing there.

Everything changes with the passage of time. However, the locals still fumigate their living rooms by burning dried wormwood and find the reason for the remarkable achievements in animal husbandry in wormwood abundant in their region.

Samgukyusa (one of the national classics dealing with the history of the Three Kingdoms–Koguryo, Paekje and Silla) records the following tale about the birth of Tangun.

“Once upon a time, a bear and a tiger lived in a same cave. They begged Hwanung, later Tangun’s father, to make humans of them. Hwanung gave them a bunch of wormwood and 20 cloves of garlic, saying if they spent one hundred days without exposing themselves to the sun after eating them, they could become humans. The tiger that broke the promise could not become a human, and the bear that kept the promise became a woman. She lived with Hwanung and gave birth to Tangun.”

Mt Kumgang, a celebrated mountain in Korea, is also called Mt Pongrae. Here, the words pong and rae carry the meaning of wormwood in Chinese characters. In other words, Mt Kumgang contains the meaning of a wormwood mountain.

Wormwood has been widely used by the Koreans in their dietary life and medical treatment.

Rice-cake made with the herb can be cited as the first one.

For its peculiar fragrance and taste, the rice cake is one of the specialties favoured by the Koreans from long ago.

The people have the custom of gathering green wormwood leaves in spring, particularly in May, parboiling and infusing them in water for a night before preparing various kinds of cakes by mixing the leaves with rice, wheat or corn flour.

There is also wormwood tea.

Pillow stuffed with dried wormwood has a special effect on disinfection and hypertension as it warms the back of the head.

The Korean traditional medicine has a moxibustion therapy which prevents and cures diseases by stimulating meridian points with the heat from burning wormwood.

The herb plays an important part in Koryo medicine for its wide range of treatment as it represses germs, stops bleeding, relieves fever and treats chronic hepatitis, constipation and women’s diseases.

Chae Hui Gyong, a researcher at a unit under the Ministry of Public Health, has specialized in wormwood for over two decades. She has developed dozens of highly efficacious medicines with wormwood, including one which has a special virtue for curing liver disorders, all of which are gaining public favour.

Wormwood is still closely associated with the Korean people in their life as a valuable and indispensable natural resource for its high medicinal value.

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