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Learning to Make the Food of Chuseok, Korea's Version of Thanksgiving

Growing up in the Midwest, Chuseok—a celebration of food, family, and culture—was one of the ways I learned about my Korean heritage.

by Dakota Kim
Nov 23 2015, 7:00pm

A table heavy with a Chuseok feast. Photo by Irene Yoo

During the Chuseok celebrations of my childhood, I'd skirt around the buffet table and take one bite from each of the songpyeon, little pockets of rice dough, trying to find the ones filled with the honey-sugar-sesame mixture. The cakes looked identical from the outside, but some were filled with sesame, others with chestnut paste, and others with sweet red bean paste, which I despised. So I nibbled each one to find the sesame-filled songpyeon I craved.

One year, when I was four, the pastor's wife caught me halfway through my little search-and-destroy mission. She told me that good little Korean girls don't try them all, but instead neatly take one, eat it studiously, and return for one more serving at most. It's the only thing I remember from that Chuseok: The Korean idiom that says, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."

Chuseok is the Korean equivalent to America's Thanksgiving. There's food and family, and the holiday nods to the seasonal change. The original Chuseok, some believe, was a celebration of the underdog Silla kingdom triumphing over the rival Baekje kingdom. As the legend goes, a turtle appeared to the king with markings on its shell that proclaimed that Baekje was the full moon, while Silla was the half moon. Baekje would soon wane, while Silla would wax. And so it came to pass in the fall, and the Silla Kingdom celebrated its victory with songpyeon, the half-moon rice cakes.

In modern times, Chuseok—which falls sometime between September and October—is a celebration of the harvest and a time to pay respect to your ancestors. You're supposed to clear the graves of your descendants and prepare a specific ancestral table, with the tops cut off the fruit to let the spirits in. The adults drink rice wine and kids have wrestling matches and play games like massive tug-of-wars.

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Growing up in the Midwest, Chuseok was one of the ways I learned about my Korean heritage. We had a tug-of-war in the church multipurpose room of the Korean-American church I grew up in, while our mothers steamed fresh songpyeon in the church kitchen. I remember thinking, while lined up yanking with 15 other kids, that if our side let go at just the right time, the other side would fall down all at once and we could run to the kitchen and grab all the food first.

American Thanksgiving was as much a part of my cultural framework as Chuseok. My godparents taught my parents the traditions of American Thanksgiving soon after they immigrated here, and I was raised with the traditions of yelling at the wide receiver to go for it, perfecting pecan-pear stuffing, and arguing with family at the dinner table. On Thanksgiving, I'm always the first one up in the morning cooking and checking the turkey—but I never learned how to make songpyeon on Chuseok, the holiday my parents and their parents and their parents had grown up celebrating, for generations.

This year, I wanted to finally learn to make those half-moon cakes, as a way to more fully and understand my ancestors' lives before me. But with such a delicate, specialized food, I was hesitant to venture out on a limb on my own. So my friend Joo-Yeon and I enrolled in a Chuseok class with Korean-American chef Shin Kim of the cooking school Banchan Story.

Our class of eight cooked up a massive Korean harvest feast with fresh red peppers and zucchinis, garlic chives and squash. We made a savory braised short rib stew (kalbi ggim), glass noodles (japchae), radish kimchi, and a hearty stovetop rice with kabocha squash (danhobak bab).

Most symbolically, I finally got the chance to try my hand at folding songpyeon into those famous half-moon shapes, the way I'd watched my mother for years. There's a saying that those who fold the prettiest songpyeon will marry a nice, good-looking spouse and have beautiful babies, and given the gaping, misshapen songpyeon I produced, I'm fairly certain my future is doomed. But it was all forgotten when Chef Shin capped off the cooking class with Chuseok gifts for all of us and glasses of sujeonggwa, persimmon cinnamon punch, my absolute favorite Korean drink.

Photo by Irene Yoo

That night, I attended a Chuseok party at the house of my friend Irene Yoo, who runs Yooeating, a Korean pop-up food series. She'd laid a table heavy with the weight of rice cakes, jeon, yellow Korean melons, lotus root, soy sauce quail eggs, chive and spinach salads. We did shots of soju and as I became drunk, I became sentimental.

It's not just that Korean food tastes good—it's nourishing to the soul. When I was younger, I couldn't quite put my finger on it: Was it the familiarity, the well-worn grooves it has worn into our tongues over church potlucks, family dinners, backyard barbecues, and hiking picnics? Was it that it was our reward every time we did something right, or brought home a good grade? Was it that yelling "Eat your kimchi!" was the only way our hardworking immigrant parents knew how to show love?

Or was it the timeworn taste of our inherited culture? I know my ancestors had things harder than I do—no central air, no Netflix subscription—but they danced together, and made those half-moon rice cakes, year after year, for generations. I grew up too far from my ancestors' graves to pay proper respects on Chuseok, but my family found a church, Korean friends, and our own ways to make Chuseok in America—small things, like a game of sticks, a tug of war, and the making of half-moon rice cakes. We'll all celebrate American Thanksgiving this year, too—two cultures, two food-laden holidays.

When I think about those badly misshapen half-moons I made, I look forward to the ones I'll make in the future, with my Korean-American friends nearby, who will save the sugar-sesame songpyeon for me, naturally.

Follow Dakota Kim on Twitter.

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