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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.