Rice Cakes and Other Tasty Chuseok Traditions

Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is traditionally celebrated with a bounty of delicious food. One of the most treasured offerings on family dinner tables is songpyeon, or glutinous rice cake filled with healthy ingredients and shaped like a crescent moon.

The name derives from the practice of layering pine needles when steaming the rice cake as "song" is the Korean word for pine tree. According to ancient Korean folklore, eating songpyeon meant you would grow tall and strong like one of the trees. One of the most important foods for many Koreans, rice cakes are said to have preceded steamed rice as part of a staple diet, but the ingredients stuffed inside differ according to season.

The first day of a new year (hereinafter referred to according to the lunar calendar) begins with a meal of rice-cake soup, or ddeokguk. For Koreans, a serving of the soup marks the advent of another year in terms of their age.

On the year's first full-moon day (Daeboreum), people eat yaksik, also called yakbap (literally "medicinal rice"), or steamed glutinous rice mixed with chestnuts, jujubes and pine nuts. Seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil, it is another kind of rice cake despite its appearance resembling a serving of steamed rice.

Rice cakes are also hugely popular during other traditional festivals.

On March 3, people celebrate the arrival of spring with jindallae hwajeon, or fried pancake made of glutinous rice and decorated with azalea petals on top. Buddha's Birthday on May 8 is observed with neutiddeok, or steamed rice cake containing zelkova shoots.

Dano, which falls on May 5, used to be regarded as the most auspicious day of the year. This relates to the concept of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, as the latter is supposed to reach its peak on this day, when Koreans tuck into some rice cake with a kind of marsh plant called surichwiddeok.

Meanwhile, on June 15 (Yudujeol), sanghwabyeong, or steamed rice cakes with honey red beans, vegetables and meat, is consumed along with ddeoksudan, which is made using thinly-sliced tubed rice cake, mug bean starch and honey.

On July 7 (Chilseok), people cook grilled wheat cakes, or miljeonbyeong, while chrysanthemum petals are used to make fried pancakes on Sept. 9 (Jungyangjeol). On the winter solstice, patjok, or red bean soup with balls of glutinous rice, is usually served.

Other festive family occasions are also celebrated with rice cakes called baekseolgi. One hundred days after a new baby is born, these should be shared among 100 people as a form of blessing and prayer that the baby will enjoy a long and healthy life.

On the baby's first birthday, the table is also set with baekseolgi and songpyeon, symbolizing the baby's smooth passage through life and healthy growth.

englishnews@chosun.com / Oct. 02, 2012 08:35 KST