It’s probably safe to say that most people are familiar with the Chinese New Year. But, what about the Korean New Year? Perhaps less so. Seollal, the lunar New Year’s Day, falls on Jan. 23 this year, the Year of the Black Dragon. It’s the same date as the Chinese New Year, and that’s because it’s the same calendar. (Photo courtesy of Stock.XCHNG/Sarej)
Seollal is the most celebrated holiday in Korea. It’s a time to get together with family, honor one’s ancestors and elders, engage in traditional games and rituals, exchange gifts, and of course, eat. There is a dizzying array of dishes prepared for the celebration, of which we’ve only been able to provide a small, but representative sample. Much of the gift giving and many of the rituals center around food as well, and the celebration typically starts three days before the holiday. That’s a lot of eating.
Beyond basic facts though, I’m no expert on Korean culture, so to get the scoop, I was lucky enough to have chef Jennifer Maeng, who has worked with the Korean Food Foundation, and Hyosun Ro, author of the blog Eating and Living, contribute some excellent recipes. Ro, a hardworking mother of two, also offered to talk a little bit about about how Koreans celebrate this very important holiday.
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Traditionally, Korean lives were entirely based on the lunar calendar. The lunar calendar years are represented by animals in established order repeated every 12 years. The dragon is the fifth one in the order.
According to the Korea Times, the Year of the Dragon comes every 12 years, but this year is the Year of Black Dragon, which arrives every 60 years, making 2012 even more special. It is also said that the birth rate is expected to rise, as many married couples will want their baby to be born under the energy of the dignified, powerful black dragon.
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Many people travel to visit their relatives and bring gifts to them. Women of the house work hard for days leading up to the big day to prepare the feasts. Everyone dresses up in their best clothing, usually hanbok (the traditional dress), and tries to look his or her best to start the new year with a clean slate. (Photo courtesy of flickr/KOREA.NET)
In the early morning, many families perform ancestral rites, known as charae. After the rituals, the family members enjoy the feast. Then, the young people honor the elders of the family by wishing them a prosperous and healthy new year, with a deep bow called a sebae. In return, they receive cash. They also visit elders of relatives and friends and do the same. Often, families and friends gather to play traditional games during the festivities. The most popular one is yut nori, which is a board game with four wooden sticks that work like dice.
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A must-eat dish is tteokguk (rice cake soup). It’s made with garaetteok, which is unsweetened and shaped into a long cylinder. For the soup, garaetteok is sliced into thin oval shapes. The white oval shape symbolizes a bright and prosperous new year. Also, Koreans traditionally age another year on this day, rather than their birthday. It’s commonly said that one must eat a bowl of tteokguk to become one year older.
There are so many other dishes prepared for Seollal, such as galbi jjim (braised short ribs), japchae (stir-fried starch noodles with beef and vegetables), mandu (dumplings), nokdu jeon/bindaetteok (savory mung bean pancakes), saengseon jeon (pan-fried battered fish), namul (vegetable dishes), various rice cakes, and hangwa (traditional sweets and cookies), just to name a few.
The prepared food is first offered to the ancestors on the ritual table. It is believed that the ancestors actually visit that day and enjoy the spread. As such, food is a serious matter and very carefully prepared. Only after the ritual, the food is served to the family members and other visitors.