▲ Rice cakes, known as“ songpyeon”are a popular dish in Korea all year round, but they take on greater significance during Chuseok, when they represent the harvest, and making them becomes a source of fun for family members. Photos courtesy Agricultural Research and Extension Services of Jeju Provincial Govt.
Although Chusoek is often referred to by English speakers as Korean Thanksgiving, it is a unique holiday unlike anything found in the West. The easy part to understand is that Chuseok is a harvest festival and it involves a lot of cooking, eating, and family gatherings. Similar to Thanksgiving, special foods are served in a festive manner for the holiday.
Chuseok traditions Chuseok is a celebration of the harvest, but unlike Thanksgiving which marks the end of the growing season, Chuseok is observed on the first harvest of the year- the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. The fresh, abundant harvest has the best flavor, and therefore is most appropriate to honor the ancestors. “Cha-rae sang” is the term for the collection of food and drinks, traditionally offered on a table to the spirits of the ancestors. The menu of dishes for the spirit feast can be used as a blue print for the Chusoek meal that living family members enjoy.
The table is set, with many rules and specifications about what is served and how. The meal for the spirits is laid out on a table facing north, in most Korean homes. The basics include: apples, Asian pears, rice snacks, persimmons, chestnuts, jujubes, fish, greens, bean sprouts, three fish soups, meat and vegetables, grilled meat and vegetables on skewers, fried pies, alcohol, and the special Chuseok treat songpyeon.
Sweet rice cakes Songpyeon are small rice-cake treats that are essential to any Chuseok feast. Rice from the sweet, first harvest is ground into flour and kneaded with water to make the rice cake or “duk”. The dough is pressed into a circle and filled with a wide variety of sweet fillings. The cakes are sealed and finally, the songpyeon are steamed in a basket with pine needles, which infuse the cakes with their delicate scent. The result is a chewy, dense cake with sweet, soft center.
Each region of Korea, and each family, has their own variation of songpyeon. The outer rice cake of the songpyeon can be colored with mugwort to make green cake, omija for pink, pumpkin for yellow, or just left white. The classic filling is made of sesame seeds, chestnuts, or sweet red or green beans. The options are endless, ranging from fruit to flowers to clams. Due to the rocky soil yielding poor rice crops on Jeju, the Jeju’s specialty songpyeon is made of glutinous millet, mugwort, and red beans. These days, most people make the standard rice variety.
The fun is in the making The significance of songpyeon is found in its shape. Resembling bright, shiny little packages on a plate, the rice cakes symbolize the wrapping up of good wishes and dreams, keeping them for the winter to come. While the family makes songpyeon, there is a friendly competition among the single women to make the most beautiful and perfect cake of the day. She who succeeds will find true love. Pregnant women also have a songpyeon ritual. They place a pine needle into one of the cakes and bite it after steaming. If they bite the pointed tip of the needle, they will have a boy, and if it's the soft end, it will be a girl. These traditions make the songpyeon fun to make as well as eat.
Chuseok is wonderful Korean holiday where many people travel to their hometowns and spend time with their families. Making and eating songpyeon for Chuseok is a fun and tasty experience that brings people together. There are many simple recipes on the internet if you want to make them yourself. Remember to wrap your good intentions and hopes for the future with the filling and share your bounty with your family and friends, in the spirit of Chuseok.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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