Writing a cookbook is hard. I lie awake at night wondering why my seolleontang didn’t turn white. I worry that my food tastes bad, or even worse, just mediocre. I plan grocery expeditions in three different boroughs and feel my shoulders ache just thinking of carrying the groceries home. And of course, there is the issue, or more accurately, issues of translating Korean ingredients into words that are understandable and available in English.
For example, the question of scallions. The easiest way is to start with a picture: from left to right, a Korean daepa (대파), a leek, and a bunch of American scallions (also known as green onions, a whole separate issue for Part II of this post).
Korean cooking primarily uses two kinds of young, long green vegetables belonging to the Allium genus that comprises onions, leeks, shallots, garlic and chives.
The first, daepa, is about three-quarters to an inch thick and very long, so long I have to fold them in half to get them to fit inside my vegetable drawer. They are often used to make stock, but they are also often thrown into soups right before serving, adding a flavor that remains fresh and sharp. When used in this way, they are usually split in half lengthwise and then sliced thinly to create little half-moons of translucent green and white. In the U.S., I’ve only ever been able to find them in Korean and Japanese grocery stores, never anywhere else.
Daepa is often translated in English-language Korean cookbooks as “leek.” That is not correct. It may be fair to call them “Korean leeks,” but it’s definitely misleading to imply they’re simply the same leeks Americans are used to seeing in their grocery stores. Yes, it belongs to the same family as leeks, and its size is closer to a leek than a scallion, but if you look closely, you can see that they are very different. In the leek, the green stems grow out of the white base stiff and wide, like a fan. In daepa, the green stems are floppier and more flexible.
Judging by this photo, the Catalan calcot may be similar to daepa. It also may be accurate to call daepa a “welsh onion,” but I can’t say for sure because I’ve never seen a self-described welsh onion.
In flavor, daepa and leek are noticeably different as well. When raw, a leek is mild and ever so faintly sweet. Daepa has more of a kick with a lingering even fainter sweetness. When cooked, the difference is even more noticeable. Leeks cook up almost creamy in their sweetness. Daepa sweetens as it cooks, like any onion, but it retains a sharper, more garlicky flavor.
The second type of green onion commonly used in Korean cooking is shilpa, 실파, often called just pa, 파. This is the type of scallion that gets cooked into seafood-scallion pancakes, chopped and thrown into marinades for bulgogi and galbi, and thrown into all kinds of soups and stews, as well as many kimchis.
Shilpa look a lot more like the scallions you can find in American grocery stores, but even they are not an exact match. Compare the photo at the top and the photo just above, of shilpa that my mom bought while I was in Korea. Korean shilpa are a little thinner and more delicate in both looks and in flavor. Still, they’re a close enough match that I feel comfortable using American scallions when Korean recipes call for shilpa.
And here is where I make my stand as a cookbook author: I feel more comfortable using American scallions when Korean recipes call for daepa as well.
I know, you’re all reeling in horror. But it’s true. If you make a Korean beef stock with a leek, you will end up a stock that’s noticeably too sweet. I know, I’ve tried. It’s true that American scallions don’t add quite the same flavor as daepa. But I find I can add just a little bit of extra sweetness with an onion, and I’m experimenting with whether it’s worth using a yellow onion rather than the white one more common in Korean cooking.
So that seems easy, right? Buy a bunch of scallions and be done with it! But that doesn’t get to the question of how scallions should be described…Stay tuned for Part II.