Every year by the time a full moon appears, multiple department stores and online markets in Korea become hectic with people trying to buy snacks and groceries for a special holiday. Celebrated for three days, this holiday, also known as Lunar New Year, marks the beginning of a new year according to the lunisolar calendar. It provides an opportunity for sons and daughters who moved to another city for either work, marriage, or school to go visit their parents. But more importantly, Lunar New Year is the time for an entire family to get together and cook and eat traditional food and snacks. Due to the current pandemic of COVID-19, classes have become asynchronous, enabling numerous international students to go back home and celebrate Lunar New Year with their families. There are three main traditional dishes that are prevalently found on each family’s table on Lunar New Year in Korea.
The first dish is rice cake soup called “Tteokguk”. This dish is made with white rice cakes that are in an elliptical shape and clear soup boiled with beef and soy sauce. Some people put dumplings, eggs, green onions, or seaweed according to personal preference. The origin of the rice cake soup comes from our ancestors who believed the reverence of time to start a new year came from white rice cakes. Before becoming an elliptical shape which represents the shape of the sun, rice cake has to first go through the process of stretching which has a meaning of long prosperity in wealth. There is also a saying in Korea that you gain a year older after you eat rice cake soup which provides another reason to have the dish on the Lunar New Year table.
The second dish is “Hangua”, a type of sweet snack created with a mixture of grain powder and honey. Originally made as an alternative to fruits during seasons that did not produce any fruits, “Hangua” was widely offered to kings in a Court feast and during Rite of Passage rituals. Because the snack was always present at significant events, it is known to be precious and significant and to only be eaten on special holidays like the Lunar New Year. There are various types of “Hangua” such as “Yugua” which is crispy on the exterior and airy on the interior and “Gangjeong” which is filled with glutinous nutty beans.
The third dish is braised short ribs known as “Galbi-jjim”. Our ancestors have maintained the custom of “sechan” which is to send valuable food to adults as gifts on New Year’s Day. Since meat was so rare back then, meat was mainly sent to adults. Following this tradition, Koreans nowadays make sure to have spare ribs and beef on New Year’s table especially when eating with older adults. “Galbi-jjim” is a menu that adds sweet soy sauce flavor to braised ribs along with Korean radish, pine nuts, and Asian pear.
Not only are these dishes easy to cook, but also they maintain a long tradition since the first century of Korea. Koreans have great pride over the traditional dishes, and nowadays easier recipes to cook these dishes are being developed so that foreigners can also follow along and taste the flavor of food that brings families together on one special holiday, Lunar New Year.