Food News, Korean Eats

Chuseok: Korea’s Harvest Thanksgiving Holiday



 Chuseok is the Korean version of Thanksgiving. During this holiday, the family gives thanks to their ancestors by welcoming the spirits into their houses to taste the ethereal flavors of the year’s harvest. This may sound superstitious, but the real intention is to commemorate the departed. Because without our ancestors, literally, we wouldn’t exist. This is a family holiday and to be invited to a family’s Chuseok celebration is a very special honor. Basically, the family is accepting the guest into their family to not only meet the living relatives that attend, but also the spirits that have passed.During my first year in Korea I was bestowed this special honor by the Kim family in Gyeong Ju.

Jikyeong was a student of mine and we became fast friends and she knew that I was new to Korea and I didn’t have anyone to celebrate this holiday with. I accepted her invitation, but with one request: I wanted to participate in the preparation of the various dishes. This request was met with whimsy because Chuseok is seen by many as the “wife’s burden.”

I didn’t know this. I arrived bright and early ready to assist in the kitchen.What I learned was that the food lacks many of the flavors that Korea is famous for. Garlic and chili peppers are purposely omitted from the Chuseok table for these strong flavors are believed to offend the ancestors. Most of the vegetable dishes such as bean sprouts, spinach, minari (mugwort), eggplant, squash, sweet potatoes and gosari (bracken) were boiled or steamed. Most were flavored with sesame oil and a little salt.

I helped Jikyeong’s mother prepare seafood soup that was flavored lightly with soybean paste, tofu, vegetables, and squid. I then helped fry some tofu, and three whole dried fish.After most of the food was prepared, we made “song p’yon.” Song p’yon are crescent-moon shaped rice cake that are filled with sweetened red bean or roasted sesame seed sweetened with honey. These were the most labor intensive, yet fun part of the thanksgiving feast. Mrs. Kim first took rice flour and kneaded it with a little bit of hot water to bring the dough together. The dough then had to sit for an hour or so. With half the flour she mixed it with mugwort, which turned it a dark green color. The other half stayed ghostly white. Jikyeong, Mr. Kim, and I then sat around a low table and took a little rice flour and formed a flattened disk in the palms of our hands. Then we filled with either red bean or sesame seed paste and, by closing our hands, we formed the shape of the crescent moon. It was very important to seal in the filling because they were then steamed until they were soft and pillowy.

We then set the Chuseok table. The food was arranged on two low tables upon bronze plates. The fish was laid in the center with the fish all facing east. To the northeast section we set the plate of song p’yon. Below the fish we placed seven plates of boiled vegetables: bean sprouts, eggplant, mushrooms, squash, sweet potato, gosari, and minari. Below the vegetables we put out the fresh fruit of Autumn. As high as gravity would allow we stacked plums, red grapes, apples, oranges, pears, and cham-wei: Korean melon. And then we placed three bowls of rice to the left, three bowls for soup on the right, three pairs of bronze chopsticks and three spoons, three small bronze wine cups, and one large bronze bowl which sat at the center of the table. Interestingly, the settings are the opposite of how they would normally be set, because the ancestors are in a world opposite to that of the living. 

Mr. Kim and his daughter Jikyeong got dressed in their traditional garbs, hanboks, and solemnly entered the room. Mrs. Kim and I were asked to leave the room and we watched from the side. Mr. Kim and Jikyeong stood in front of the dinner table and then bowed three times, prostrating themselves all the way to the ground. Mr. Kim then poured a little rice wine from a pear shaped, long necked decanter into the large bronze bowl that sat at the center of the table, took a pair of bronze chops and tapped them three times into the bottom of the bowl.A sonorous resonance filled the room. He then moved the three sets of chopsticks from their place setting to three different dishes. He sat one set of chopsticks on the fried fish, another on the bean sprouts, and the last set on the song p’yon. He then backed away from the table and he and Jikyeong again bowed three times. When he rose, he carefully lit incense and poured some wine into each of the small wine cups. He again tapped the bronze chopsticks three times. Then the pair reverently sat down as the scent of the incense filled the room.

 When they felt it was time, they slowly rose again and bowed three times. Mr. Kim moved the metal chopsticks to three different dishes. This time he moved one set to the eggplant, another to a different fish, and the third to the minari. They bowed again and then sat before the table setting. They repeated this one last time and as the last echo of the chopsticks left the room, the ceremony was finished. The ceremony is a beautiful progression to behold and one that has significance needs explanation to be understood. Koreans believe their ancestors live a mirrored existence, so the table settings of the rice bowl, soup, and chopsticks and spoon are the opposite from the living.

The first pouring of rice wine is to welcome the ancestor into their home, the second pour is to say, “enjoy the food” and the third is to say good-bye and to go in peace. During the ceremony no living creature is allowed to be killed because- not even a fly- because it could be the spirit of the ancestor that has arrived to enjoy the meal. Koreans believe their ancestors will devour the spirit of the food but could be offended by strong flavors, so the feast is prepared as simply and naturally as possible. Everything red on the table is to the west and everything white to the east.


The tops of the fruit is pared off on the end so the visiting ancestors can easily enjoy the food.After the ceremony is finished, it is then time for the living to feast on the physical food on the table; it is a period of delicious celebration. Most families will then make large bowls of bibimbap (rice mixed with various vegetables) and share in eating the side dishes and fruit.Not every Chuseok is the same. Some families have many more settings for each ancestor they wish to thank, and a new setting could be added for a new member that has recently passed away.And the idea of the celebration is not superstition; it is about respect and commemoration. In America, we give thanks to a distant god, but Koreans give thanks to something more tangible. Where would we be without our parents and our grandparents?If you are asked to join in on this festivity, accept it with humility and honor. You are not only being introduced to not only the living members of the family, but also those who look over them.

Daniel Gray

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Food News, Korean Eats

Food for Thought: Crescent Moon Rice Cakes by Lindsey Huster

Crescent Moon Rice Cakes: Songpyeon

With Chuseok coming up, I thought you should know a bit about the classic food. This article was published 1 year ago on this site and it has been reprinted with permission. Here’s another great column from Lindsey Huster.

With Chuseok less than a week away, preparations have long been in the works for this food-lovers holiday. Already coworkers are bringing home pears, SPAM and other boxed goods.
The timely, uxorial duties have also fallen upon Korean women to (once again) exhaustively prepare large quantities of food. Although the holiday is known for its traditional japchae, bulgogi and fruit, Songpyeon remains the ultimate attribute of this holiday season.

Songpyeon, or crescent moon rice cake, consists of rice flour dough, which is stuffed with an endless possibility of fillings. Although the rice cake itself is a half-moon shaped, the filling is always molded into a full moon shape. At one time, people believed that their wishes would come true if they prayed to the moon.

Songpyeon is made by kneading rice flour with hot water and mung beans. Then, the filling is put into the dough. Songpyeon is later steamed in a layer of pine needles, which leaves the trademark pattern on the finished Songpyeon. The unusually strong scent of pine needles (phytoncide, a protective chemical) symbolizes purification and is believed to eliminate bad luck.

Those Chuseok virtuosos who are able to produce tasty Songpyeon are held in the highest regard for the season. According to Korean tradition, those who possess the talent of molding pretty Songpyeon will meet a pretty or handsome partner in the future. Others believe that you will have pretty daughters if you can create pretty Songpyeon. Either way, good Songpyeon makings ensure good luck for those with deft hands.

Although the history of Songpyeon is vague, it is believed that people started to make it during the Goryo period. Koreans would make Songpyeon on the 15 of the New Year (following the lunar calendar) and distribute it to servants. In addition to Chuseok, Songpyeon is also used on a baby’s first birthday. Ultimately, people hope that the child is full of knowledge, much in the same way that Songpyeon is full of stuffing.

With its extensive history, a large spectrum of Songpyeon now exist- in varied colors, shapes and
sizes- which reflect the different regions of Korea. In Seoul, the “osaek” or five color Songpyeon
is commonly made. These five hues (white, brown, pink, green and yellow) reflect the harmony of nature.

Other regions, too, are famous for their different kinds of Songpyeon. The Chungcheon Province is known for pumpkin Songpyeon, while Gangwon is famous for potato and acorn Songpyeon. “Mosi” or ramie Songpyeon is distinct to the Gyeongsang Province and arrowroot Songpyeon is made in the Jeolla Province.

The shapes and consistencies of Songpyeon also vary as well. There are shellfish shaped Songpyeon in Seoul, and mondu-shaped Songpyeon in Gangwon and GwangHae Provinces. The consistency of the dough varies in the Songpyeon from Gyeongsang and Gangwon Provences, which tend to be thicker. Even North Korea has its own Songpyeon. In Pyeongan Province, the rice cake is shaped into “jogae” or shellfish and clams.

Inside the Songpyeon, the dough is jammed with fillings that are meant to symbolize a wish of fulfillment towards one’s studies. Omija is used to make the color red, gardenia seeds for yellow, Artemisia for green and pine endodermis for brown. Maehwa Songpyeon, which are made without fillings, are supposed to signify the desire for knowledge, as well as a wish for a positive outlook on life.

Regardless of your plans this Seoraksan, I kindly endorse seeking out (by any means necessary),
these annual chewy morsels packed with Korean tradition.

Lindsey Huster is a writer who usually hails from Chicago. She enjoys listening to music,wearing cardigans and generally anything vegetarian. Send her an e-mail here: Lindsey Huster 

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Korean Eats, South Seoul

Sulfur Fed, Mud Jar Roasted Duck

A blast from the past. Here’s one of the first restaurant reviews I posted on Seoul Eats back when this blog was called, (then

Nolboo Sulfur Fed, Mud Jar Roasted Duck

Say what!

Behind the Express Bus terminal in Seoul, next to the Marriot Hotel, there is a Nolboo restaurant that serves “Sulfur Duck Roasted in Mud.” It is called the 놀부 유화오리 진홁구이 (Nolboo Yuhwa-ori jinhukgui). At this restaurant you get duck that’s fed sulfur and then stuffed with sticky brown rice, black rice, sweet potato, beans, ginko, dae-chu (Korean red dates), deer antler, ginseng, licorice, angelica, and who knows what else.

The duck are fed sulfur (I’m not sure how they feed them sulfur, but I assume it goes into their feed). The reasoning behind the sulfur is: that direct contact with sulfur is a dangerous substance for all mammals other than ducks. Sulfur has curative qualities, but it is toxic for other mammals. The idea is that the ducks eat and metabolize the substance and make it easy I can’t really explain it. Here’s what I got from another blog, 

According to a widely believed oriental medical theory, sulfur can be super healthy for human body. It is because, as the theory goes, ducks’ bodies produce a lot of good elements that counteract the effects of sulfur, which neutralize in human bodies as well as working against polluting elements.

Yeah, I don’t know. It sounds a wee bit like fan death to me. I will tell you one thing, I’ve had a lot of good luck since I’ve had the duck. I’m not sure if they’re related, but my Korean friends sure think so. They believe that my constitution (and they mean this in the most banal way) creates my present reality.

I’m not a superstitious person; I’m all about taste. The duck meat was succulent and the texture was like Cuban pork that was roasted all day- but it needed salt. (which was served on the side with a mustard dip). Also the skin, which should have been Peking crispy was soggy along the bottom of the dish, but crispy on top. The rice and herbs inside had a medicinal bouquet- as if a cool breeze wafted through the Oriental medicine clinic; it wasn’t over powering -but then again, it wasn’t very welcoming either. Honestly, the smell itself wouldn’t have drawn me to this dish.

It was like the after Valentine’s box of mixed chocolates from the Chocolatier; you never know what you’re going to get- but you know it’s going to be the awkward Valentine experiments gone bad. Also, trying to get some rice and then finding little bits of duck bones jettisoned inside doesn’t make for good eats.


See…this is their write up on the text

I am being too harsh. If you took the duck meat and dipped in the salt, it was nice- but I’m American, I don’t want to have to season my own food. The other sauce that came with it- a sweet, mustardly, vinegar was also a nice complement to the duck meat as well. The banchon (the Korean sidedishes) were not spectacular, but I did enjoy the crisp salad served with a ginger, carrot dressing.

Oh, I also didn’t like how almost immediately we were sat, we were served. They didn’t even ask what we wanted to order, but then again, there was only one thing on the lunch menu. I would have liked time to settle and get used to my surroundings before I was served. That wasn’t the case here.

Would I go again? Probably not, but it was an interesting experience. It wasn’t inedible, but it would take a lot more than sugar to make this medicine go down.

Nolboo Sulfur Roasted Duck