Enjoy Flavors of Songpyeon
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Dining tables throughout the country will be laden with many delicious dishes for the ``Chuseok'' thanksgiving holiday, which starts Friday and lasts through Sunday.
Chuseok is also known as ``Hangawi,'' which falls on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Lunar Calendar. It also marks the day when Koreans would thank their ancestors for the bountiful harvest and share the blessings with family members.
Koreans usually celebrate the holiday with a big feast at home. But if there's one particular dish that is a must for any Chuseok celebration, it is ``songpyeon.''
Songpyeon are half-moon shaped rice cakes specially made by Korean families during Chuseok. The rice cakes were traditionally made using freshly harvested rice, and then offered by family members to their ancestors during ``charye'' or ancestral memorial ritual on the morning of Chuseok.
In his book ``Seasonal Customs of Korea,'' David E. Shaffer said families always prepare rice from the freshly harvested grains, as well as fruits like persimmons, apples, dates, pears and chestnuts, for the holiday.
``As always, no Chuseok would be complete without the half-moon-shaped songpyeon rice cakes, which could be filled with soybeans, cowpeas, chestnuts, jujubes, bean powder, sesame or honey. Originally, songpyeon was steamed over pine needles, which gave the rice cake its distinctive taste and name, which means `pine cakes','' he said.
Chuseok is also a time when people make wishes, usually for wealth, health, love and success, as they gaze at the full moon.
Dr. Yoon Sook-ja, director of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, said songpyeon represents the wishes of people. ``Songpyeon represents the moon. Many people also say their wishes while making and eating songpyeon during Chuseok. We wish for good health and success,'' Yoon told The Korea Times, at the institute's office, Waryong-dong, Jongno, Seoul, Tuesday.
How to Make Songpyeon
Many families make their own songpyeon on the eve of Chuseok. It is a labor of love, as people strive to make the songpyeon as delicious and beautiful as possible.
``Koreans believe that if you make beautiful songpyeon, you will have very attractive daughters,'' Yoon said, adding that many young women practice to perfect the half-moon shape.
The recipe for songpyeon is fairly simple: rice flour, salt and boiling water to make the dough. The filling can consist of sesame seeds, jujubes, dates, red beans, chestnuts, and honey, depending on one's tastes.
The dough is cut out in circles, and a teaspoon of filling is placed inside the hollow center, and closed. Yoon demonstrated how to shape the dough into a perfect crescent shape, pressing the dough lightly.
The rice cakes are steamed over a bed of pine needles. The practice of steaming the rice cakes dates back hundreds of years, but there are recent findings that pine needles have health benefits. The pine trees produce large amounts of phytoncide, which kills various germs and viruses in the air.
After steaming for about 20-30 minutes, the rice cakes are rinsed with cold water. The pieces are blotted dry, and finally brushed with sesame oil to keep them fresh and moist.
The final result is songpyeon with a delicious flavor, chewy texture and the fragrant scent of pine needles.
Songpyeon from Different Regions
While the half-moon shaped songpyeon is perhaps the most popular one, it also comes in a variety of colors and shapes depending on the region. There are rice cakes in shellfish, dumpling and flower shapes in different areas. Even the thickness of the rice dough varies, as the ones in Gyeongsang and Gangwon areas appear to be thicker.
Yoon said the songpyeon ingredients usually differ among the provinces, and people usually incorporate the most abundant crops into the recipe.
Chungcheon Provinces are known for pumpkin songpyeon, since pumpkin is widely grown in the region. The pumpkin is sliced, dried and turned into powder, and then mixed with the rice flour to make the dough. The result is not just a deliciously sweet rice cake, but also a very appealing one because of the bright yellow-orange hue.
Gangwon Province is plentiful in potato, corn and bean crops, as well as oak trees. It is famous for potato songpyeon and acorn songpyeon. Acorns may have a bitter taste, but once they are mixed with the rice cake, it turns out to be quite tasty.
``Mosi'' or ramie songpyeon is distinct to the Gyeongsang Provinces. There are many ramie plants in the area, and the leaves are added to make the rice cakes healthier.
``Chik'' or arrowroot songpyeon is usually made in the Jeolla Provinces. Arrowroot starch is extracted from the herbal plant, and then mixed in with the rice dough.
In Seoul, the ``osaek'' or five color songpyeon is commonly made. The five colors represent the harmony of nature. The rice cakes are made in five different flavors, and people use natural ingredients to create the brilliant colors. White is simply the plain songpyeon, while cinnamon powder gives a brownish hue to the rice cake. To create the pink color, syrups made of either strawberries or ``omija'' schizandra berries are used. Mugwort creates a deep green color, and gardenia seeds create a nice yellow shade for the songpyeon.
North Korea also has its own distinctive songpyeon. In Pyeongan Province, the rice cake is shaped into ``jogae'' or shellfish and clams.
With the wide variety of flavors, colors and shapes, Yoon assures that there's songpyeon to satisfy everyone's tastes.
``Koreans love songpyeon. These are all very, very delicious. And they are all very pleasing to the eye,'' Yoon said, as she offered a pretty pink songpyeon decorated with a tiny flower.
So just before you pop a songpyeon in your month, take a moment to make a wish, and to appreciate the hundreds of years' tradition and the hard work that goes into each piece.