▲ Six beautiful examples of Charye food. From top left, seaweed and fish gaeng, star-shaped ujjik, neureumjeon, gosari chae, pork jeok, and yangha chae. Photos courtesy Agricultural Research and Extension Services of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Chuseok, the Harvest Moon Festival, is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, sometime during September or early October. Chuseok has been a celebrated holiday for hundreds of years and in archaic Korean was called Hangawi, meaning “great middle.” (1) The origin of Chuseok is unclear. Some literature dates its start back about 2,000 years, when the Silla King Euri ruled during the legendary period of the Three Kingdoms. He wanted to help the weaving industry grow so he organized a national weaving contest. The losers had to prepare certain foods for the winners on a special day. (2) Other scholars believe that Chuseok originated from shamanistic celebrations of the harvest moon.
This year it falls on Sept. 12 but the holiday is actually observed for three days from Sept. 11 through Sept. 13. Chuseok has become the most important holiday of the year in Korea. It has been called the Korean Thanksgiving Day and it is the time of the harvesting of fruits and grains. It is also a time to view the full moon. The day before Chuseok is used to facilitate transportation for families to return to their home towns and prepare food for the next day. The day after Chuseok is a time to rest and clean up as well as time to return home. Chuseok has many traditions and customs, and much of the holiday is centered around food.
Customs and traditions
About a month before Chuseok, families clear the weeds from their ancestral graves – this is called Beolcho. During the morning of Chuseok, families gather around their homes and hold a memorial service for their ancestors. This custom is called Charye. After Charye, families gather around the table and enjoy a big breakfast of freshly harvested foods that symbolize their blessings and respect for family members that have passed away. The Chuseok holiday is centered around foods like pyeon (tteok or rice cake), gaeng (soup), jeok (roasted meat and/or fish), jeon (pancake), chae (heated vegetables), chimchae (kimchi), fruit, and others.
Foods may differ slightly depending on the province in Korea where the celebrations are taking place, and on what foods were available. Traditionally rice was scarce in Jeju; therefore barley, buckwheat, and wheat were used for tteok. Regional differences within Jeju also play a role in the foods prepared during Chuseok. For example, in eastern Jeju where the earth was barren people usually grew buckwheat. People used it to make muk, a jelly-like food made of buckwheat, mung beans, or acorns. In contrast, in the western part of Jeju where people grow beans, they made tofu muk for the ancestral rite.
A few variations of tteok are jepen, solben, jeolben, ujjik, gangjeong, and gwajil. Each type represents a different aspect of nature. For example, jepen is flat and square and therefore represents earth. Solben is shaped like a half moon and represents the moon. Jeolben is round representing the sun. Ujjik is star-shaped representing a star. Gangjeong is made of buckwheat and is square-shaped, representing a farm. Gwajil is a cookie and is prepared by frying sweetened dough and it represents fog. When tteok is placed on a dish, jepen the earth is put on first and ujjik the star is placed on last.
Other tteok popular for Jeju Chuseok are bingteokk, a buckwheat pancake rolled with boiled radish and seasonings, and sangoetteok, a special kind of fermented tteok that looks very similar to bread. That is why today many Jeju people put bread on the Charye table – a custom that is not observed on the mainland.
As for songpyeon, special tteok for Chuseok, Jeju songpyeon is interestingly round and very big compared to songpyeon from other regions of Korea. Jeju songpyeon is filled with mashed beans, mashed mung beans, and grain syrup.
Another popular food is gaeng — a soup made from seaweed and fish, beef and sliced radish or seaweed and pork. Jeok is also an important food. This is beef, pork, shark, octopus, squid, or muk cut into long rectangular pieces then seasoned with soybean sauce. Five or seven pieces are then threaded onto a wooden stick and roasted. Jeju people use more pork than beef compared to people on the mainland.
Jeon is a pancake made with pork or fish, green onion, mushroom, pumpkin, and other vegetables fried together with a small amount of whipped egg and flour. The types of jeon that are special to Jeju are ganjeon, which is made with pork liver; bokbukijeon, which is made with pork lung; and neureumijeon, which is made with gosari and green onion. Gosari is mandatory for Chuseok on Jeju Island.
Chae and jesuk are Chuseok staples. Chae is a boiled vegetable dish made with gosari, bean sprout, sliced radish, spinach, and yangha (flower bud of Japanese ginger). This dish should not be seasoned with garlic or pepper powder. As for jesuk, roasted fish, people must use scaled fish.
Traditional fruits that are served on Chuseok include apples, pears, tangerines, persimmons and grapes. Also, a special drink consumed during Chuseok is omegisul, which is made from millet. Soju is also often consumed.
How to arrange food on the table
Since Confucianism was introduced to Jeju, the ancestral rite has been conducted by Confucian rules. Some of the rules say how to put the food on the table; fish has to be in the east of the table and meat has to be in the west (Eodongyukseo); red fruit has to be in the east, white fruit has to be put in the west (Hongdongbaekseo); the head of fish has to face east and the tail has to face east (Dudongmiseo); kimchi is in the east and boiled vegetables are in the west (Saengdongsukseo); and others. However, the way of placing food is slightly different from door to door. For instance, some people judge the color of a certain fruit by the exterior color but others do by the interior color.
Note: Most of the other information is from local traditional food expert Yang Yong Jin, and his mother Kim Ji Soon’s book “Jejudo Food.”
(Translation by Kim Jung Lim)
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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