Chuseok Feast

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On Saturday, October 3, the moon shone the fullest it has all year, and Koreans celebrated 추석, Chuseok, also known as Hangawi.  The holiday isn’t quite the same as the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival or the Vietnamese Tet Trung Thu, but all three celebrations occur at the same time each year, as they’re centered on the harvest moon.  Supposedly, Chuseok in Korea has its origins in moon worship, which sounds sort of lovely and ethereal, but it’s now a holiday as frenzied as Christmas.

In the days leading up to Chuseok, the streets of Seoul were clogged with people driving to get groceries, buy gifts, and presumably go home to their hometowns to pay their respects to their ancestors.  It’s not a gift-giving holiday quite like Christmas, but it’s that perfect opportunity to ask So-and-So for a favor with a well-timed gift, like a $200 box of beef or even a $35 Spam gift set.  (I’m not sure what kind of favor that will buy you, but keep in mind this is a Spam-loving country.)  Of course, there are gifts that are given just out of kindness and generosity, like the giant box of beautiful peaches my aunt sent over, but I kind of love the thought that some shady deals might be being made over a box of raw short ribs.  If I were in a position to grant favors, I would certainly rather get meat than a Tiffany crystal vase.

In the end, though, Chuseok is much more like Thanksgiving than Christmas.  Once the three-day holiday actually begins, the roads begin to empty because people are at home spending time with their families.  There’s an acknowledgment of the past, as people honor their ancestors by tending their graves and setting a sumptuous table before them.  And there’s a thankfulness for the present, with a ritual offering of the first rice of the harvest to one’s ancestors.

Most of all, there is a lot of food.  My family gave up on driving anywhere during Chuseok years ago, but at least while my sister and I lived here, we always took the “eat a lot” tradition very seriously.  Once we left home, my mother would tell me via phone how good all the food was and how sad she was we weren’t there to eat it.  So given the opportunity, how could I not come home for Chuseok?

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The foods served traditionally at Chuseok are your usual chesa foods, the ancient classics that are placed on a low table for your ancestors, with an emphasis on the harvest’s first fruits.  There’s almost always jeon, or pan-fried fritters, and a meat dish in celebration.

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In our house, every big holiday is an excuse to eat kalbi-jjim, or super-fatty short ribs braised with chestnuts and dates in a sweet, soy sauce marinade.

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The rest of the foods served vary from family to family.  Our Chuseok table included steamed prawns; bindaetteok or mung bean pancakes, shrimp and zucchini jeon; bean sprout kongnamul; bellflower roots and cucumbers tossed in a tangy, spicy sauce; and a light Western-influenced salad with my mom’s signature nut-pepper dressing.

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We made an old favorite, seogogi chapssalgui, where you take thin slices of beef marinated like bulgogi, slightly sweet and salty, and then dredge it in sticky rice flour.  It gets pan-fried, and then you wrap each slice around slivered green onions, sprouts, and thinly sliced perilla leaves, with a dab or two of a vinegar-mustard sauce.

And of course, there were multiple kinds of kimchi: Napa cabbage, young radish, and a cold, refreshing water kimchi filled with thinly sliced radish.  My mother must have been inspired by my cookbook project, because she resurrected a Chuseok tradition from her family, 토란탕 or beef and taro soup.

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We washed it all down with a couple of bottles of 경주겨동법주, Gyeongju beopju, an ancient wine with a clear, light and fragrant flavor, similar to Japanese sake.  It’s apparently been designated “Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 86-3,” and must always be made with water from the well of the Choi family in Gyeonsan Province!

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We ended the meal with the one food that is truly particular to Chuseok, the way turkey is to Thanksgiving, 송편, songpyeon or pine-steamed rice cakes.  (The block on the left is a white tteok filled with beans–my favorite.)  The exact shape and recipe for songpyeon varies from region to region, but they all have a sweet filling, usually made of sesame seeds or white beans, and they’re steamed on a bed of sweet-smelling pine needles.  The outer dough can range in color as well, from pure white to dark green, even a sweet yellow or pink.  Sitting around and making them as a family was a game, and the person who made the prettiest one would soon meet a good-looking husband or wife.  Given how obsessed my parents are with marriage and grandchildren, I’m glad songpyeon is one of the few things my family has never made from scratch.

I have to confess I didn’t make all this food.  My mother rules her kitchen, and she wasn’t going to give up her realm so easily, but she did let me and my sister do quite a bit.  When we sat down to eat, it felt like we had made dinner together as a family, which, in the end, is really the best way to cook a Chuseok feast.

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10 Responses to “Chuseok Feast”

  1. lina Says:

    that looks delicious~!! it makes me homesick…

  2. Grace Says:

    I wish you could have been there! Want to come up to NY this Sunday and eat kalbi-jjim?

  3. Tom Says:

    It all looks delicious. I’m sure mum loved sharing her kitchen with you two if this was the result!! Is the taste for spam a hangover from army rations during the Korean war?

  4. nancy Says:

    what a meal!! thanks for sharing
    drool…

  5. Grace Says:

    Thank you! Tom, yes, the taste for spam was definitely developed during the Korean War, as it was what the American soldiers ate. The country was devastated, there was no food, and I’m sure the taste of any kind of meat, even canned, was delicious. And having eaten it growing up, I think it’s delicious, too, though I haven’t eaten it in, oh, 10 years.

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  7. Soy Kim Says:

    Hi!

    I came across your blog post while looking for new ideas for my parents’ korean church parties. I’ve never seen the chapssalgui and I’m very excited to try this dish at home. They don’t serve it at any of the restaurants on this side of the country (Seattle).

    I noticed you said it was beef marinated like bulgogi. So would I just take some marinated bulgogi, dredge it in sticky rice flour and pan fry? And then, as you mentioned, wrap it around kaenip, sprouts and green onions. Is the mustard vinegar sauce the same thing as the stuff used for goojeolpan?

    If you could enlighten me on any of these points, I would greatly appreciate it!

    Thanks! And I love your blog.

  8. Grace Says:

    Hi Soy,
    Thanks for the kind words! I’ve never made chapssalgui with already-marinated bulgogi but I imagine it would work. The hard part is that if it’s sliced super-thin, all piled on top of each other, it’ll be hard to maneuver the pieces. But you could certainly try it. When you dredge it in sticky rice flour, don’t be surprised if the flour turns pale pink–it’ll still fry up okay. I think the trickier part is keeping the pan hot enough so the flour doesn’t get greasy, but not so hot that it gets crispy. I’ve also done it just with salt and pepper and thought that was good, too.

    And yes, the mustard vinegar sauce is the same as in gujeolpan. Good luck!

  9. vietfoodrecipes Says:

    steamed prawns, simple but delicate. I love it! seogogi chapssalgui is delicious as well. Beautiful!

  10. dressing tables Says:

    dressing tables…

    […]Chuseok Feast « One Fork, One Spoon[…]…

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