An American and Korean Perspective
Yes, those acorns—the little cute things that fall by the millions in autumn. Here in the U.S., we have 60+ species of oak, which were heavily used by the Native Americans for food. Today most people assume they’re inedible. But beyond being edible, acorn foods prepared properly are delicious, and nutritionally speaking are “among the most appropriate staple foods on earth,” observes Sam Thayer in The Forager’s Harvest, as they offer a mix of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and minerals in similar proportions as the world’s most widely grown crops: wheat, corn, and rice. A few Native American tribes in California know this, and still eat their traditional acorn foods.
50-50 Acorn-Wheat Bread.
In heavy crop years, oak forests can produce more food per acre than the average U.S. wheat field. Breeding oak trees could raise yields even more. For the forested ecosystems of the world like the eastern U.S., the implications of acorns as a food source are enormous. Agriculture takes up nearly 40% of the world’s land area. Imagine if instead of clearing the forest to plant fields of corn and wheat, we could derive our food from forest-based agriculture. Imagine how much cleaner the water would be, how much richer the soil, how much carbon would be sequestered, and wildlife habitat restored.
And speaking of wildlife, I am not arguing that we should glean every acorn from our remaining wild lands. Rather, we should learn to use forest foods that allow us to take acreage out of cleared agricultural land, and plant tree crops like oak. Such a change could yield food for people while also restoring the fabric of the forest on a grand scale.
As suggested by seminal tree crops writer, J. Russell Smith, California acorn researcher, David Bainbridge, and others, it’s time for acorns to re-enter American cuisine. As an ingredient in breads, cookies, crackers, crusts, hot cereal, stews—and why not beer—acorns are a mild, hearty, healthy ingredient. But by choosing acorns, we’re doing more than trying out the latest novel ingredient: we’re choosing to nourish ourselves from the ecosystem where we live.
Dotorimuk muchim at a restaurant in Seoul. The acorn jelly takes on the flavor of the sesame, red pepper, and other spices.
For two weeks in December 2013 I visited Korea, where food made from acorns is incorporated into the modern diet, to learn how they do it. Acorn foods, mainly in the form of acorn jelly (dotorimuk), are big in Korean cuisine. They were on the menu in most of the restaurants I visited, and every grocery store. During my trip, I ate many delicious acorn foods while traveling to visit small- and large-scale acorn food producers.
Many rural Koreans of the older generation have experiences climbing around on the mountains gathering acorns as a part of their way of life. On a snowy day near Gongju, about 75 miles south of Seoul, I visited a Korean friend’s mother- and father-in-law, a couple that has produced acorn jelly to local markets for 40 years.
We climbed the hill behind their homestead, walking past cages for meat rabbits, and large clusters of garlic and sesame leaves hanging in the barn to dry for market. We explored a grove of oaks that have helped sustain this family and culture for decades. It is was no orchard—just a natural-appearing, largely un-managed, un-fertilized woodland, with various other plant species growing under the oaks. Food from the woods—and lots of it.
Rake Choi and his father-in-law showing three of the species of oak used for food in that region.
Further south, down along the west coast near Seocheon, “Farmer’s Food” (Nongmin) acorn factory processes 1,000 tons of acorns into food each year. The acorns arrive by the truckload from small gatherers all over Korea.
This factory is something of a rarity in Korea these days as, in the last decade or two, most acorn powder production has shifted to China (although ironically, the Chinese generally do not eat acorn foods). It took my guide, Professor Stephanie Yoon, some digging to find this place, because most of the Korean acorn food factories have gone out of business due to the cheaper Chinese imports.
But, as in the U.S., some Korean consumers are willing to pay extra for locally made foods. Farmer’s Food acorn factory is serving up local dotori, and thriving as a result.
Lincoln Smith, working on bringing acorn foods to the U.S. market, teaches or co-teaches all courses at Forested, and designs forest gardens. He is passionate about production ecosystems, and brings a background in agronomic science and sustainable landscape design. Lincoln started Forested, LLC to develop and share research in forest gardening. He is a regular speaker on forest gardening at venues such as University of Maryland, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Maryland Master Gardeners' Conference. Find out more about his work at www.Forested.us.
Lincoln Smith showing how to process acorns into food at the Smithsonian American History Museum.