To commemorate Chuseok, here’s a little something I wrote a couple of years ago for Seoul Magazine:
What makes family holidays special? Besides celebrating a certain event, they are markers for people to reflect on the past, relishing in dusty memories, and delighting in the innocent enthusiasm of children. When families reunite, it reminds them of how much time has passed, which intensifies the desire to pass traditions to the next generation in a cycle where parents and grandparents want their children to share the same memories they had when they were younger.
The foods people eat during these times are the most traditional because they ignite the two most abstract and most personal of senses, taste and smell. These are intensely influential in our memories. It is one thing to watch old home movies of Christmas past with Bing Crosby playing in the background. Yet the smell of freshly cut pine instantly transports one to cozy times in front of a Christmas tree. The film Ratatouille illustrates this example when the dish of the same name converts the jaded antagonistic food critic by transporting him back to his childhood.
This holds true for Chuseok. It is the biggest family holiday in the Korean year. Koreans jam traffic and even fly half-way around the world to be with their families during this time. Even though there are general dishes that are staples for Chuseok, each family has its unique recipes, and each person has that one particular food she is fond of.
“Jeon 전,” declares Dohee Kim, talking about her love for the Korean style of pan frying ingredients with flour and egg coatings, which are considered party food. Her father’s hometown is in the mountains, “So the people in that area live on vegetables.”
She points out that different regions make different jeons. Her husband’s family is from the coast. Their traditional jeons contain seafood.
Eun Jeong Lee, at first, declared that there were no unique foods her family made for Chuseok.
“In Korea, Chuseok foods are standardized. You are supposed to prepare certain foods in a certain way and arrange them exactly so for your ancestors.”
When pressed harder, she relented. She said that when she was a child, her family got up at five in the morning to head to her oldest paternal uncle’s house. Her mother prepared a breakfast of sogogi guk 소고기 국(spicy beef soup). She hated getting up early and eating the soup.
Yet at a recent trip to a local theme park, she ordered a bowl of sogogi guk, and the flavor brought her back to her childhood. She became more nostalgic. Even though she did not like getting up early for Chuseok, she still had fond memories of family and simpler times. All from a bowl of beef soup.
Songpyeon Takes a Bow
The stars of the show during this time are songpyeon 송편. Generally they are chewy rice dough filled with sweet fillings. The little packages are then steamed with pine needles.
It is a favorite of Hyewon Chun and CheongAh Kim, known as the “Kimchi Girls,” a popular podcast based in Korea.
“Aunts and the children all sit around in the kitchen or living room with all the ingredients to make songpyeon,” declares Ms. Kim, ”And all enjoy making it. They say that the prettier you make the songpyeon, the better looking wife or husband you will have. Just a fun superstition. So we all try to make it as pretty as possible into nice balanced half-moon shapes.”
This is one of those holiday treats that are personal in the sense that people who grew up eating it love it. Outsiders who didn’t experience this traditional snack as children sometimes love and sometimes avoid it. It’s like growing up and craving those controversial holiday foods such as fruitcake, mincemeat pies and lutefisk. In order to truly understand and enjoy them, you need to have had them as a child.
Mediocre songpyeon can turn someone off of it for life. Yet when songpyeon is good, it’s addictive.
The best treat for a non-Korean during Chuseok is an invitation for a meal at a Korean family’s home late in the holiday, after all the ceremonies have finished. There is a good chance to try old and special recipes handed down for generations. Maybe it’s a good time to break out the special reserve of kimchi that has been aging a year or more. It is very strong. Yet like a well aged wine or cheese, it has a complex flavor and actually tingles on the tongue.
If you are indeed an outsider looking in on Chuseok try to experience what you can of it. You may not “get it” at first. Yet the memories tend to adhere and grow with each passing year.
And the songpyeon does start tasting better.