Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is inextricably associated with songpyeon, or glutinous rice cakes filled with healthy ingredients. However, according to old documents and folklore, the rice cakes had nothing in particular to do with the harvest moon and were eaten on a number of holidays.
Some documents say that many different types of songpyeon were enjoyed in springtime, and some say they were eaten on the first day of the farming season. Land owners would make big rice cakes and give them to their slaves and farmhands, matching the number to their age and asking them to do good job.
According to a different source, people ate tteokguk or rice cake soup on the first day of the year, yaksik or yakbap (literally "medicinal rice") or steamed glutinous rice mixed with chestnuts, jujubes and pine nut on the 15th of January, and songpyeon on the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar.
But the songpyeon that people eat at Chuseok is theoretically made with newly harvested rice, turning the tradition on its head. Either way, they remain an important marker in the lunar year.
◆ Shapes and Folk Beliefs
Chuseok falls in the middle of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, when the moon is full. The tradition of thanking the full moon for the year's harvest exists elsewhere as well, for example in China and Japan. Koreans make songpyeon, Chinese make mooncakes, and Japanese make tsukimi dango, all in the shape of the moon.
But while mooncakes and tsukimi dango are round, resembling the full moon, songpyeon is in the shape of the half-moon.
There are many hypotheses why. "Our ancestors thought round rice cakes looked erotic, so they went for a more natural look, rather than a perfect round shape," says one folklorist. There are more credible theories. "The full moon can only wane, and a crescent moon will fill up. That's why our ancestors made songpyeon in half-moon or crescent shape," said another.
There is saying that a virgin who makes pretty songpyeon will get a good husband, and a pregnant woman who makes shapely songpyeon will have a baby girl. If she undercooks the songpyeon, she will give a birth to a girl, and if it's well cooked it will be a boy.
◆ Regional Differences
The shape and the ingredients used to make songpyeon vary according to region. In Seoul, people make dainty bite-sized songpyeon. In Gangwon Province, where potatoes and acorns are in abundance, people use potato starch and acorn powder to make more substantial rustic cakes.
In Jeolla Provinces, which boast a sophisticated culinary tradition, people make very ornate songpyeon in the shape of flowers. By adding extracts of mugwort, grapes, and other herbs or vegetables, they make them with dazzling colors.
In the Chungcheong provinces, dough using rice flour mixed with pumpkin powder is used to make pumpkin-shaped songpyeon. Along the coast of Pyongan Province in North Korea, people make songpyeon in the shape of a clam, hoping for a huge catch.
In general, the northern region of the Korean Peninsula makes bigger songpyeon, and the southern region smaller and more decorative ones.
◆ Pine Needles
Songpyeon literally means rice cake cooked on pine needles. But since it is getting increasingly difficult to find them and also because of growing concerns about pesticide and pollutants, people steam songpyeon without the leaves.
However, there is another reason why pine needles are important. Not only they prevent the rice cakes to stick to each other, the phytoncide in pine needles help prevent songpyeon from going off.