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Finger food with a folklore twistRecipe: Songpyeon – traditional Chuseok rice cakes
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승인 2011.09.12  22:19:37
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▲ Songpyeon. Photo by Kimberly Comeau

1 cup non-glutinous rice power (sifted)
3 tablespoons boiling water

¼ cup roasted sesame seeds (ground)
¼ cup brown sugar
A pinch of salt
*sesame oil

1. Add rice flour to bowl and then add boiling water. Mix with wooden spoon.

2. Put dough into plastic bag or plastic wrap and knead for five minutes. Set aside for 30 minutes.

3. To make filling add ground sesame seeds, brown sugar, and salt together. Mix really well.

4. After the dough has set for 30 minutes take a small piece and roll it into a ball.

5. Then with your finger make a depression in the middle and add the filling.

6. Now it is time to steam the songpyeon. Boil four cups of water in a steamer.

7. When the water begins to boil put a cloth down for the base and add enough pine needles to cover the bottom.

8. Put the raw rice cake onto the bed of pine needles and cover and steam for 25 minutes over medium-high heat.

9. Add two cups of cold water with a drop of sesame oil(*) into a large bowl.

10. When songpyeon is finished steaming, quickly add them to the cold water mixture for a few minutes.

11. Serve on a plate and enjoy.

Note: To make green tea songpyeon add one teaspoon of green tea powder to the flour mixture and mix well before adding water. Also, add a ½ tablespoon of boiling water more when using the green tea powder.

When purchasing rice flour I went straight to the everyday market. The merchant prepared the rice flour just how it should be — very fine. I told her what I needed it for and she knew exactly what to do.

The recipe was pretty straightforward although it takes practice to get the cakes looking perfect.

Songpyeon is commonly associated with Chuseok and is served on the Charye table. They are prepared and served as a gesture of gratitude to ancestors during the Harvest Festival’s Ancestral Ceremony, and are also offered at ancestral tombs (1).

There are many variations of songpyeon. Several different doughs that are very popular on Jeju include, ssuk, mugwort, ome (five-flavor berry), green tea, hemp-leaf, and songgi songpyeon (which is made from the innermost layer of pine bark). Dried acorn, arrowroot, and pumpkin powders are also used in songpyeon dough. Kkot songpyeon (flower songpyeon) have flower petals placed on the surface of the cakes in order to make them look colorful and visually attractive. Maehwa songpyeon are cakes that are fashioned into floral shapes, such as the shape of a plum flower. There are a variety of songpyeon fillings such as mungbean, chestnuts, and jujubes.

Old Korean folklore states that a maiden who is good at shaping songpyeon will find a good marriage partner, while a pregnant woman who has the same talent will give birth to a beautiful daughter. As a result, women and girls in traditional Korea spent long evenings on the eve of Chuseok doing their best to make nicely-shaped songpyeon. Once the songpyeon were steamed and served, pregnant women would taste them in order to predict whether the child was going to be a boy or a girl. If a woman happened to pick an undercooked cake, it meant that she would have a girl. Accordingly, selecting a well-cooked cake signified that a baby would be a boy. Another way of predicting the sex of the fetus was by putting a pine needle inside the songpyeon before steaming them. A pregnant woman then would take a bite of a cooked cake, and if she started eating the cake from the part where the head of the needle was located, it was believed to be an indicator of a baby girl. If the first bite was at the pointed part of a needle, the expected baby was thought to be a boy. (1)

The use of pine needles during the steaming process may also have some beneficial health effects. Various spices, as well as garlic, onion, tea tree, oak, and pine give off phytoncides – which are a natural defense against decay and being eaten by insects and animals. Pine trees (and their needles) can have a phytoncide concentration 10 times higher than other trees. Phytoncides when ingested have been shown to “possess the ability to destroy (harmful) micro-organisms, including ones that are pathogenic.” They may also help in the production of anti-cancer proteins. In several parts of Asia, including Korea, many people go into the woods to “forest bathe,” attempting to “breathe in” the phytoncides that are emitted by plants and trees. During Chuseok, the consumption of songpyeon steamed over pine needles helps to further symbolize purification and protection from “bad luck.” (2)

1. Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs
2. ‘Medical Geology,’ Japanese Society of Biometeorology, 1992

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