The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 09 Feb 2023

I fail to eat pickled dragonflies

Last month we went to Korea to visit Toph and Katara's maternal grandparents. We stayed in a hotel with a fancy buffet breakfast. After the first breakfast Katara asked if I had seen the pickled dragonflies. I had not — there was too much to see! But I looked for them the next day.

They looked like this:

A black
bowl of pale-colored things that strongly resemble large grubs.  Each
grublike thing is tapered at the ends, a few centimeters long and
about one centimeter thick in the middle.  Each one is shaped like a
stack of tires or M&M candies, but not colorful. They are presented in
a dark earthenware bowl on a bed of ice, with a pair of tongs.

The label did indeed identify his (in English) as “Pickled Dragonfly”:

of sign from the buffet, describing six available side dishes in
English and Korean: “Pickled Dragonfly”, “Pickled Garlic”, “Pickled
Garlic Leaf”, “Salted Herring Roe”, “Salted Scallop”, and “Salted

(It wasn't too unlikely, because Koreans do sometimes eat insects. You used to be able to buy toasted silkworm pupae on the street as a snack, although I didn't see any on this trip. And I have seen centipedes on sale for medicinal purposes, I think perhaps candy-coated.)

I tried one, but after one bite I described it as “vegetal”. The more I thought about it (and the more of them I ate) the more sure I was that it was a mislabeled vegetable of some sort. I would expect an insect to have a hard shell and a softer inside. This, whatever it was, was crunchy but completely uniform, with a texture quite like a jicama or raw potato.

Fortunately there was a Korean label on it that was more accurate than the English label: “초석잠 장아찌” (/choseokjam jangajji/).

장아찌 means pickled vegetables but it took quite a while to track down what vegetable it was because it is not much eaten in the West.

초석잠 (/choseokjam/) is the correct Korean name. It is the tuber of Stachys affinis, sometimes called Chinese artichoke or artichoke betony. I had not heard of betony before but there is apparently a whole family of edible betony plants.

I liked them and ate them with breakfast most days. Here's what they look like before they have been pickled:

grublike tubers, this time in their natural state just out of the
ground.  They are dirty, but white, with a pearl-like luster.  Some of them have a cluster of little
hairs at one end.

Stachys affinis photograph CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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