You might be able to readily identify what the third Thursday of November is, but what about the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar?
To Koreans, this time is called Chuseok, also known as Hangawi. And as big as Thanksgiving is in the U.S., Chuseok is HUGE in Korea, considered Korean Thanksgiving, one of the country’s most significant holidays of the year.
Chuseok translates to “autumn eve” and is, at the core, a harvest moon festival nodding back to Korea’s traditional agrarian roots. It usually falls sometime in late September to early October (this year it’s Sept. 23 to Sept. 25). Chuseok’s exact dates are somewhat of a moving target year to year, but a couple of things remain constant: the traditional foods that make their way onto every family table, and the infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic that plagues the small country’s major roads in the lead-up to the long holiday, as people make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to honor familial ancestors.
Like any good holiday, Chuseok’s three-day period is one marked by lots of reflective family time, raucous games, and of course, good, glorious food. I have early memories of just being able to peer over the kitchen table, watching my mother thread beef, scallion, and imitation crab pieces onto short skewers to make colorful sanjeok jeon (check out a before/after here), among other savory jeon pancakes (incidentally, Koreans are masters of pan-fried foods!).
Historically, the women of the family would get together to prepare labor-intensive dishes for a charye, or ancestral memorial, ceremony. In addition to the above-mentioned jeon, songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes filled with sesame seeds, red beans, brown sugar, chestnuts, or pine nuts) are the quintessential Chuseok food, with other highlighted dishes including freshly harvested rice; fruit like Asian pear, apples, and jujubes; and rice liquor. There are, of course, traditional ways to set up this elaborate table, but rituals and exactitude vary by region and, at the end of the day, how your own family prefers to celebrate.
With more Koreans living abroad, far from their extended clans, the diaspora has naturally found ways to reflect on old traditions while creating their own. I asked a few notable Koreans and Korean-Americans working in the food industry here in the States about what Chuseok means to them:
Simon Kim, Owner, Cote
Growing up in Korea, I spent this holiday with extended family and honored our ancestors by visiting their resting places. Now in the United States, I find it is much more nuclear family–oriented. Since the Korean population here is much smaller, this holiday tends towards immediate family gatherings. Still, these small celebrations remain important as a celebration of heritage. Because I spend so much time in the restaurant at Cote, this is a valuable holiday that allows me to take a day and spend it with my wife, Nayun and daughter, Dani. I like to celebrate by cooking traditional Korean food for my family, especially savory pancakes known as jeon.
Sarah Lee, Owner, Kimbap Lab
I grew up as a Korean-American in Chicago, where we celebrated American Thanksgiving with a side of Korean dishes. When I lived in Korea as an adult for three short years, I was overwhelmed with the love and grace my relatives showed me. Inviting me into their homes, making mandoo together from scratch, eating kimchi with our hands then licking our fingers…these are all very important memories I have of the holiday. Leading up to Chuseok, I looked forward to this the most. Being away from my immediate family at that time and spending this day with my extended Korean family made me feel like I was closer to home.
No matter where you are, celebrating this occasion with friends and family is the best! It really doesn’t matter if you have the biggest Korean feast or a simple bowl of Korean soup. Just like American Thanksgiving, it’s being together that’s most important.
Susanna Yoon, Pastry Chef/Owner, Stick with Me Sweets
My favorite food during Chuseok is songpyeon. My grandma, who was a huge inspiration to me, would make songpyeon in an array of different colors such as pink, yellow, white, and green. She taught me how to create the outer skin and fill the songpyeon with fillings, such as homemade sweet mung bean paste and roasted white sesame and honey. After filling them, she would teach me how to gently pinch the edges as you would with a dumpling, but with smoother folded edges and a thicker skin. She would joke with me and tell me that if I made a beautiful songpyeon, then I would bear a beautiful child. I took that as a fun challenge to make them as beautiful as possible, you know, just in case this was true! When they are steamed just right, the outer layer of the rice cakes gives off a beautiful and glossy shine. They are soft and pillowy with a sweet and chewy texture.
I don’t get to travel back home every Chuseok, but I still celebrate by eating these treats and calling my family. One day I hope to keep this Chuseok tradition alive by making songpyeon at home.
Chuseok is just one of many harvest festivals celebrated around the globe. Tell us how you welcome autumn below.