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Every autumn, thousands of Koreans travel home for Chuseok, a three-day festival of thanksgiving in which traditional Korean cuisine takes centre stage. We examine the customs surrounding this extraordinarily exceptional holiday, concentrating on the food and beverages consumed there.
You presumably are aware of Thanksgiving in the United States and may recall Harvest Festival celebrations at school in the UK, but you may not be as familiar with Korea’s annual three-day Thanksgiving holiday. On the fifteenth day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month, or Chuseok, or “autumn eve,” Koreans give thanks to the heavens for a bountiful crop and look forward to a prosperous one the following year. Everyone in Korea takes a break from daily life for these few days to enjoy a time filled with food, festivities, and rituals.
Over time, Chuseok (also known as hangawi), which is thought to have originated during the reign of the third monarch of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla more than 2,000 years ago, has evolved into one of the most significant times in the Korean calendar. Almost everyone will return to their hometowns for these three days to celebrate Chuseok with their family, causing some fairly amazing traffic bottlenecks! Once back at home, a variety of customs are often observed, such as the Charye and Beolcho ancestral memorial service, during which people clean up and pull weeds from the graves of their ancestors in the days leading up to the festival.
After completing these customary rites, it’s time to start having fun and playing games. Ssireum, a traditional Chuseok activity, is a form of Korean wrestling, however nowadays most people prefer to watch it on TV rather than participate themselves. and juldarigi, a huge tug of war in which the entire town generally participates. The day’s activities come to a close with the Ganggangsullae, a traditional folk dance that is done in front of a full moon and involves holding hands while rotating in a large circle while singing. Not to mention gift-giving, which has progressively become a more prevalent aspect of contemporary Chuseok celebrations.
Chuseok would not be the same without its unique food customs, much like any other significant holiday (and with all the highly active games and dancing, eating well is crucial!). Songpyeon, distinctive Korean rice cakes loaded with chestnuts, sesame seeds, and numerous other ingredients, is a meal that is often associated with Chuseok celebrations. They are steamed over pine needles to give them a distinctive aroma. They are typically prepared by the entire family on the eve of Chuseok and consumed as part of the Charye the following day. They are made in the shape of half-moons to symbolise a bright future even after Chuseok has passed.
Chuseok feasts are not just about songpyeon, though; there are many other traditional home-style foods that are prepared all year long that can be enjoyed as well. This might contain japchae, a stir-fry of glass noodles, mushrooms, onions, and carrots that is seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce and occasionally topped with bulgogi, a delicacy popular in Korea (marinated beef). During the holiday, jeon, a sort of Korean savoury pancake cooked with fish, sweet potato, and zucchini, as well as galbi-jjim, braised short ribs, are also preferred dishes. Dakdoritang, a fiery, braised chicken stew stuffed with potatoes, carrots, and onions, could make for another substantial Chuseok centrepiece.
Equally significant to Chuseok are sweet snacks, which all Korean youngsters eagerly anticipate during the festival. A type of Korean confection called hangwa has a consistency in between a cake and a cookie and is created from honey, rice flour, fruits, and roots. It is very well-liked since it is tasty and nutritious, and it is embellished with vibrant natural ingredients and patterns. Pears from Korea are in season during Chuseok, therefore people frequently consume them as part of the festivities. Korean pears are spherical in shape, delightfully delicious and juicy when mature, and have a very thin peel, unlike pears found in the UK. Because of this, Korean pears have been known to increase in cost by as much as 50% at this time of year.
There are usually plenty of traditional Korean beverages flowing at any decent Chuseok party since no celebration is complete without fantastic cocktails to go along with the food and joy. A traditional beverage to start things off with is makgeolli, a mildly sparkling, slightly milky rice wine that is typically served chilled from a bowl. As the day wears on, individuals frequently switch to something a little stronger, such as soju, a Korean spirit that can have an ABV of up to about 50%. The alcoholic beverage baekseju, sometimes referred to as sindoju, is another popular choice for Chuseok. It is a transparent liquor with an ABV of roughly 13% that is produced by fermenting recently harvested rice. Ginseng is frequently used to flavour it. For individuals who are either too young or don’t want to consume alcohol, there is sikhye, a sweet rice-based soft drink with floating rice grains that is generally consumed out of a bowl rather than a cup. Because sikhye is so sweet, it’s frequently garnished with a sprinkle of pine nuts and occasionally served as dessert.
It’s now simpler than ever to recreate the tastes and flavours of Chuseok at home because to the increasing availability of traditional Korean ingredients in the UK’s numerous Asian supermarkets (particularly in London). Naturally, Chuseok is a time for family togetherness, sharing, and most importantly, being thankful for everything you have, even though food, drink, gifts, and games are all significant aspects of the celebration. Because of this, it is one of the most significant events of the year for all Koreans and something that people of all ages anxiously anticipate.