What turkey is to American Thanksgiving, songpyeon is to Chuseok. Also called Hangawi, with the literal meaning of "great middle," since it falls on Aug. 15 by the lunar calendar and is one of the three most important traditional holidays, Chuseok celebrates the end of the farming season.
Koreans might say there is no Chuseok without songpyeon. A special rice cake, it is prepared not unlike a dumpling. Songpyeon is filled with healthy ingredients like adzuki beans, black beans, mung beans, cinnamon, pine nut, walnut, chestnut, jujube, and honey. Depending on one's taste, all or some ingredients can be used. This stuffing is then enveloped in kneaded rice skin.
What makes the dish extra special is pine needles. For one thing, the name itself may be derived from the practice of layering pine needles when steaming it as "song" in songpyeon means "pine tree." The pine needles naturally form a pattern on the skin of songpyeon, thereby contributing not only to the sweet aroma that stimulates the taste buds but also to the cakes' beauty.
Songpyeon is unique in that the skin used to wrap the filling resembles a full moon but its final shape when wrapped a half moon. These shapes are not coincidental. The history of songpyeon dates back to times of the Three Kingdoms. Legend has it these two shapes ruled the destinies of the rival Baekje and Shilla kingdoms. During the reign of King Uija of Baekje, an encrypted turtle's back was found which read, "Baekje is full moon and Shilla is half moon." This puzzling code was interpreted to signify Baekje's impending decline and Shilla's rise -- and it came true when Shilla defeated Baekje. Koreans have therefore come to regard the half moon as an indicator of a bright future.
This is also why families come together to eat half moon-shaped songpyeon under the full Chuseok moon to wish for next year's plentiful harvest while expressing gratitude for another successful harvest.