Why Koreans Celebrate Chuseok with Crescent-Shaped Rice Cakes

  • By Kim Sung-yoon

    September 24, 2018 06:58

    Chuseok would be unimaginable without songpyeon, the steamed rice cakes in the shape of crescent moon that mark the harvest moon festival.

    But in the past the delicacy was not limited to Chuseok but also enjoyed on other celebrations such as Daeboreum, the first full moon of the lunar calendar, and Buddha's birthday.

    On Daeboreum, a day when people traditionally pray for health and a good harvest, people would make songpyeon as big as a man's fist and give them to servants and slaves according to their age, as a way of asking them to work hard on the farm in the year ahead.


    What makes Songpyeon special on Chuseok is that they are made with freshly harvested rice.

    Koreans are not the only people to give thanks for the year's harvest on the full moon. The harvest moon is also a holiday in China and Japan, when moon cakes in the shape of a full moon are enjoyed. Why then do Koreans use a half-moon shape?

    There are many hypotheses. Some say it was because Koreans preferred a more natural rather than a perfect shape. Others say Koreans preferred a half moon with the potential to become full, while the full moon can only wane.

    In fact, the history of songpyeon dates back to times of the Three 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. Afterwards, Koreans came to regard the half moon as an indicator of a bright future.

    There are regional variations in filling and size. Types of songpyeon in the Seoul region are smaller, and in Gangwon Province potato or acorn starch is used. Jeolla provinces, known for their sophisticated culinary tradition, have more elaborate types of songpyeon, some in the shape of flowers. In Jeju, people make flat songpeyon and use peas for filling.

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