Lunar New Year, Seollal (설날)

Lunar new year is often associated in my mind with the middle of winter vacation, the streets full of snow or frozen over. And after over a month of rest from the end of the school year, you start to realize that you really need to make some giant progress on your school work in anticipation of going back in a month or so. As a side note, at least when I was going to elementary school, Korean school year was based on the calendar year. This means you start your school year in early spring and end the school year towards the end of the year. You get a long winter break because it gets very cold in Korea. That doesn’t mean you don’t have homework. You actually have tons as you prepare for the new grade.

Some of the interesting things about the new year in Korea:

Rice Cake
by Sulkkun
Rice Cake Soup
by stuart_spivack (a flickr user)
  • We celebrate both new year’s day. One that’s the normal calendar year and the lunar year. We call the normal one, 신정 and the lunar new year, 구정. When I was young, the government or people, whichever, couldn’t really make up their mind on which one was more important. People sometimes got extra days off for the regular new year for some years and other times, got extra days off for the lunar new year. Definitely confusing although as a school child, you were on vacation so it really didn’t matter.
  • With the start of the near year (old and new), you age a year. So even if your birthday hasn’t passed, you are older. And well, since you are already a year old when you are born, sometimes the Korean age is 2 years older than what you expect. So we always have to be very specific when you are asking someone how old they are because they might be 2 years older by the U.S. standard.
  • This extra age gain is associated with a specific traditional new year’s dish. Yes, there’s always food of some kind in Korean tradition. The most prominent dish associated with the New Year is the rice cake soup, 떡국 (literally translates to rice take soup). This is not the puffed rice thing that most people associate with rice cake. It is sort of rice bread you shape into a long rod and chop it into thin slices. Then you use the beef bone broth, add a bunch of garnishes. It is one of my many favorite and nostalgic dishes.
  • Money giving custom. Like in other parts of Asia, we also do have money giving customs, but this is mostly for older parents and grandparents giving small amounts of money to younger children. Basically, a lot of parents dress up their kids in traditional Korean attire and take them to their parents. The children will wish the parents and grandparents to have a lot of luck that year (새해 복 많이 받으세요). In exchange, the parents and grandparents give children a little bit of cash. Obviously once you are a teenager, this no longer happens. And on top of that, the dressing in traditional costumes don’t usually happen either. Most people don’t wear traditional costumes other than during special events so purchasing them for kids is not really cost effective. There are rental services though.
  • Traditional Korean game,Yut Nori  (윳놀이). It’s a game with 4 pieces of wooden rod (carved) and a square piece of paper or fabric. Basically you throw the wood and move around the board based on what you get (like dice). I won’t bore you with specific rules. If you are really interested, you can search on the internet!

추석, Chuseok

추석 (Chuseok) is celebrated on lunar calendar day of August 15th, a full moon day. It is one of the largest holidays in Korea. This is the time when so many travel to see their family and have a large meal together. I compare it to Thanksgiving in the U.S. There is usually a huge amount of food, made by the wives of the family who start cooking the day before the celebration. And no, there were no men who helped out, at least in those days. Since this is after the harvest time, there is an abundance of food. Rich dishes that are not normally eaten during the year are made. The family also pay tribute to the ancestors who had gone before.

The representative food that is made together (again women) is the rice cake (not the puffed rice you get in the supermarket in the U.S.), but made with the rice powder of new rice harvested. The rice cakes were filled with honey and sesame or bean filling and steamed with pine needles to infuse them with the fragrance. Usually half moon shapes are made and filled with fillings, but as usual, my young self used to make the rice cake into all shapes. Go figure…in a collectivist culture where I was supposed to do what I was told, I never quite fit in.

When I was a child, Chuseok was a holiday that I had a love and hate relationship with. I loved it because the school was closed and there was so much good food. I loved making rice cakes and interfering (or helping) in the kitchen. I hated the holiday because that usually meant my father’s brothers invaded our house with their families. Some might think large family gatherings are wonderful, but it was never that during my childhood. I am not sure I want to go into details on this post, perhaps in another snippet. 

Food Shortcuts

If you have heard anything about Korea (or any culture with thousands of years of history), food is one of those things we cannot “not” talk about immediately. Unfortunately, making of food is rather “involved” for any culture with any amount of history. Food becomes part of ceremonies of daily lives so with passing of each year, preparing food becomes more and more complex and nuanced. The more history you have, the more complicated food becomes.

As a person who lives in this modern world with jobs, responsibilities, etc., following the old ways to make the food authentic can be a wee bit difficult. If you have time, I would seriously suggesting following the old recipes and take your time cooking. But, I am also a proponent of taking shortcuts to food making if you are unable to immerse yourself into the cooking process. The taste is probably not as profound, but it will at least hold you over until you find that time to cook as the generations ago have done.

I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to teach a cooking class although I am not a cook nor do I claim to be something other than someone who’s learned a thing or two looking over my grandmother’s shoulder or just hanging out in the kitchen. I prepared several “functional” shortcut recipes for the cooking class I taught so I thought I would introduce them here.

Korean Recipes (also click on “recipe” tag)

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