One of the biggest national holidays in South Korea falls Tuesday, Sept. 21 this year. Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is typically a time of gathering with family, cooking together and celebrating the year’s harvest. On this day, many people remember their ancestors by honoring them in the morning, just before the Chuseok meal. A traditional Chuseok table is packed with a balanced, colorful variety of sweet and savory dishes, many of which contain the first fruit and grain harvested during the season. Here are the signature foods you may see Koreans enjoy during Chuseok holiday!
Rice cake (songpyeon) and Korean sweets (hangwa)
These are two signature sweet treats for the Korean holiday. Songpyeon is a type of rice cake shaped like a dumpling, made of a glutinous shell, often made with ramie leaf, with a sesame seed or bean filling. Families often make it together, and some color the shell using strong-tinted food such as pumpkin, purple sweet potato and mugwort. Hangwa are traditional Korean sweets in various formats — yugwa, yakgwa, gangjung — which are made of grains, popped rice or dough, fried or condensed with rice syrup.
Fruit and dried fruit
As Chuseok celebrates the first harvest of the season, haetgwail, or the first fruit of the season, is essential to a Chuseok celebration. Apples, Korean pears and grapes are the most popular as they are in season for fall. Along with fresh fruit, dried fruit is also served — most often dried dates, chestnut and persimmon. If served on ancestral rites, these fruits are always plated in bundles of odd numbers.
Rice, soup and meat
No Korean meal is complete without rice and soup. On Chuseok, the rice is traditionally from the first harvest of the season, called haetsal. The soup is a classic broth consisting usually of three types of protein: in my family, beef, dried pollack and dried shrimp. Along with rice and soup, there are traditionally three types of main protein dishes — meat, fish and seafood — and often three of each protein. In my family, we cook beef, pork and chicken along with pomfret, croaker and snapper fish. For the seafood element, we cook octopus.
Korean pancake (jeon) and side dishes (namul)
Korean cuisine is known for its colorful side dishes, and a Chuseok meal can’t leave out the jeon and namul. Jeon, which we call Korean savory pancakes, are prepared in three variations: with meat (usually beef or pork), fish or vegetables. Namul is seasoned vegetables — it can be made with any plant or herb, but for Chuseok, the three most commonly seen are stir-fried fernbrake, taro stems and sweet potato stems, each with their complementary seasoning.
Rice punch (sikhye), cinnamon punch (sujeonggwa) and rice wine (chungju)
Sikhye is a Korean dessert drink common not only during Chuseok but all year round. It consists of rice inside a fermented barley drink. Sujeonggwa is a cold cinnamon drink often containing ginger and dried persimmon. These sweet drinks are often served as a snack or dessert. Chungju is an alcoholic drink — a clear, refined rice wine — that many serve on ancestral rites during Chuseok holiday.
Balance is highly emphasized when preparing the table, so food is often prepared in three: three kinds of meat, three kinds of fruit and three kinds of namul. The number three signifies “cheonjiin” — heaven, earth and man — valuing the elements and harmony of all matter, and candles and incense are also placed during ancestral rituals for further balance. While these are the dishes typically seen across the country, specific food and practices still vary by region and family traditions. Try these dishes when you get a chance, and happy Chuseok!