Archive for the ‘Songpyeon’ Category

Chuseok, Songpyeon and Pretty Daughters

October 1, 2012

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Maria is working on a career in optometry. She was a tester of recipes for our upcoming cookbook. Grace and I are thrilled that she agreed to share her experiences here with us – Diane

During my summer back in Berkeley, I came across a job posting on Craigslist for a recipe tester position. It was the first time I heard of such a position and immediately became excited at the opportunity of combining my love for cooking and my love for science. While testing recipes for Diane and Grace, it brought me back to my organic chemistry lab days when I had to accurately measure and follow directions in hopes that my experiment turned out well.

A few days ago, I was instructed to test a recipe for making songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes). As usual, I started out by glancing over the recipe before taking a moment to read the history that provides me with some background and allows me to better understand the dish. Reading this portion is something I truly enjoy because it allows me to learn about Korean culture and cuisine. But a sentence caught my attention and made me pause and re-read it. It stated that the person that makes pretty songpyeon will have a pretty daughter. I found this idea captivating and a special touch to the history section of the recipe.

Maria’s first attempt at making songpyeon

However, when I began testing this recipe, this statement started to feel threatening to me. I felt the pressure of making this recipe work because like all women, I want to give rise to pretty daughters. At first, I played around with this idea, jokingly telling Diane that I did not want an ugly daughter, but proceeding with extra caution. Unfortunately, and without a doubt, I failed. Too many things went wrong, and I ran into trouble at almost every step. By the time I needed to shape the rice cakes, I had become frustrated so I decided to form the rice cakes as if I were making Mexican empanadas, something with which I was familiar. This approach did not help either and I lost hope, but carried on. My final product was deformed, oily, mushy, and definitely not pretty.

Yesterday was Chuseok, a day where Koreans celebrate the fall and harvest season with food and drink. Songpyeon is one of the major foods prepared for Chuseok. I want to wish you a Happy Chuseok and the best of luck in making beautiful songpyeon.

Chuseok Feast

October 3, 2009

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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.