Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Why Koreans Eat Rice Cake on Holidays

Hope everyone is having a good chuseok, and eating a lot of songpyeon. Here is an insight on why Koreans eat rice cake on holidays like chuseok, from the always-informative food blog 악식가의 미식일기.

Why We Eat Rice Cake on Holidays

To cook rice, a pot is necessary. Up until the three kingdoms era, metal could only be used for weaponry. In other words, a pot made of cast iron to cook rice with was not in the kitchen. Among the artifacts of that era, steamers (siru, 시루) is the most prevalent among the artifacts having to do with eating. Thus, one can surmise that not rice, but rice cake was the staple.

Before a centralized state's formation was complete, Koreans have long lived a tribal life. Such tribe likely would have been formed based on blood ties. Also, there would have been more property common to the tribe rather than privately owned properly. While it would have been difficult for the whole tribe to cook and eat at the same time, but at least those who recognize each other to be belonging to a single family tree would have cooked together. Tracing back to the memories of the single last name villages that existed throughout Korea's rural areas as recently as 40 years ago, up to fourth cousins were considered a single family. The range would have been greater in the past.

At this point, we can imagine our ancestors cooking together. Even the steamer would not have been that common, and maintaining the fire would have been particularly difficult. Thus, one can imagine several extended families within a tribe coming together to take care of their meals. Our ancestors, setting powdered grain on a steamer, steam up rice cake, then sitting in a circle to eat. Thus, rice cake is the food of the community.

Cast iron pot appears to have become prevalent as a cooking tool around Goryeo Dynasty. This is the point at which rice becomes a regular meal. Each family's kitchen had a pot, and by then only a family ate together at a meal. "Eating rice from the same pot" [TK: a Korean idiom meaning "sharing affinity"] has come to mean that they were a family. Thus, rice is the food of the family.

We make rice cake on holidays such as chuseok or New Year's Day. Or at least, we buy rice cake to eat. It is a form of reminiscing the nostalgia for the community long, long ago. Our rice cake holds our people's ancient spirit of community.

명절에 떡을 먹는 이유 [악식가의 미식 일기]

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  1. I have not eaten rice cake in Malaysia for long time.

  2. Doesn't it make more sense to say that it's because rice cakes are special treats, so you eat them on holidays? While the sentiment is nice, I think the article is just making stuff up (not to mention poorly written, your translation sounds much better).

  3. OP: siru

    This is one huge reason I don't like the Revised Romanization system. It is not pronounced siru (see-roo), but shiru (she-roo).

    Major pet peeve of mine. Other than that, nice post.

    Anyway, I once taught a Korean culture class to foreign residents and brought various kind of rice cakes to class around Chusok. Though they didn't realize what its contents were, almost all were drawn to the one with rice wine and kept taking seconds, thirds, fourths.

  4. Sounds plausible.. Thanks for the translation.

    Incidentally, what would be a proper way to wish a good chuseok? Would a simple "Happy chuseok" be OK?

  5. Indeed, the Chinese call rice cakes 年糕 nian gao/ nin gou, which means a "(new) year cake" as it's traditionally eaten mostly during New Years or other festive days.
    Of course nowadays it's available all year round.
    Last time i visited Seoul i went to a restaurant that served rustic cuisine: 20 or more panchans... and a lot of dishes were different kinds of rice cakes from different regions, all different shapes/colours, some fluffy with air holes, some chewy.
    The waitress thought my parents & i were Japanese (we are from Hong Kong) & she tried her best in her limited Japanese to explain what everything was... Fail.
    When my mom & i came back out from the restrooms, we found our dad conversing to her in Mandarin! (the waitress was ethnic Korean from China working in Seoul) & she then explained all the unidentifiable (to us) rice cakes as different nian gao 年糕. Fun times.
    Hope i can find that resto again this October when i head to Seoul.


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