Food for Thought: Crescent Moon Rice Cakes by Lindsey Huster

Crescent Moon Rice Cakes: Songpyeon
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

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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