For a Korean girl adopted by an American family at five-months old, the love affair with food started with the perilla leaf.
Better known to some as the sesame or shiso leaf, Kristyn Leach found the prickly green and purple leaf in a Korean seed book and fell hard. And she credits the experience with inspiring her to launch Namu, a California farm specializing in Asian vegetables.
For those who have eaten it, perilla is unmistakable. It tastes like something between mint and spinach, and you either love it or loathe it. Koreans will usually pickle it or wrap meat in it for Korean barbeque. Leach likened perilla, the first plants she grew, to something like an awakening, or a reincarnation. “The plant remembered me before I remembered it,” she says.
Leach was no stranger to vegetables or farming. Growing up in the community gardens of New York with blue-collar parents, Leach learned two lessons to live by that would end up defining her career: Be of service and grow food.
As part of a white American family, Leach didn’t have Korean family recipes or even know what Korean produce was, aside from the occasional Asian pear or odd cabbage from the market. By teaching herself about Korean seeds and produce, she learned who she was and opened up a door to her sense of identity and heritage. This, she says, empowered her to start Namu farm.
To make it happen, Leach started small. Five years ago, she subleased one acre of land in the hills of San Francisco from Sage, a non-profit in Berkeley, California. There, she was exposed to a wide variety of produce and found many farmers willing to show her the way.
In addition to wanting to farm Korean vegetables, Leach also wanted to try the natural farming methods used in Korea, i.e. creating a no-till, biodynamic and organic farm; food you could trace back to its source.
This type of farming is not for the faint of heart or will. Succeeding takes years, but it was something she was determined to do the way her Korean ancestors had done, to “have a place within nature, and not one that’s dominating it.”
When Leach first began growing perilla, she brought some to chef Dennis Lee at Namu Gaji, an acclaimed modern Korean restaurant in San Francisco owned by Lee and his two brothers. California is home to a huge Korean population and in recent years Korean food and chefs have become much more mainstream. Kimchi and bi bim bap are showing up on menus around the U.S., now, but not so much back then. Lee was so impressed with Leach’s leaves, he asked her to grow chilies for Namu Gaji and soon after, Namu the farm was born. (Namu means “tree” in Korean, and emphasizes the branches of their collaboration.) Now Namu produces more produce than Namu Gaji needs—beans, peanuts, and more. Extra produce goes to Korean community centers and an Asian women’s shelter in the bay area. Recently, Namu has partnered with the Kitazawa Seed Company, the largest distributor of Asian seeds outside of Asia, to release Korean chili seeds with plans to sell a new heirloom crop each year.
Last fall Leach traveled to Korea for the first time to find seeds to bring back home. She worked on a farm and met Korean farmers, including Ms. Pyeon, an heirloom preservationist and farmer in Joellanam-do. They bonded over natural farming practices and preserving seeds, including the perilla leaf. Pyeon has three different varieties including the stone perilla, the wild ancestor of the perilla plants Leach grows.
Every September, Koreans celebrate Chuseok—think Korean Thanksgiving but over three days. It commemorates the year’s harvest and thanks the ancestors. This year at Namu, Korean drummers gathered at the farm to sow the cover crop seed and finish with a big feast. Leach says of the experience, “I felt more Korean than ever.”