Food Culture and Tradition

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Special Occasions in Korea


Similar in pattern to their culture, the religion of Koreans is gently layered. That is, although many are Christians today, their Christianity does not dispose of, but somehow rests amiably with, the traditional “layers” of Buddhism, Confucianism, spirit worship, and animism.

Special occasions may be divided into those concerning family rites and those which are widely celebrated holidays. The first and the sixty-first birthdays are considered the most important and the most festive.

A child’s first birthday is celebrated by dressing the youngster in bright colors and serving treats of rice cakes, cookies, and fruits. The whole family delights in the ceremony where the child is placed in the midst of symbols representing possible future careers and everyone enjoys predicting which symbol the child will grasp. For example, should he grasp a coin, it is believed he will be a businessman. The sixty-first birthday, especially of a man, is greeted with festive foods and much wine and rejoicing; this is called hwangab.

Traditional weddings and funerals have recently been much simplified. Elaborate processions, numerous guests (or professional wailers and mourners), and huge presentations of food and wine have been reduced to simple meaningful rituals more consistent with the times. Weddings are most often performed amidst flowers and music in special wedding halls. There is still a treasured tradition that requires parental approval of the match before the wedding, and sometimes even the astute services of a matchmaker.

On New Year’s Day (usually in February on the lunar calendar) families surround the ancestral shrine in the home of the eldest son with plates of fruits and cookies, rice cakes and “sweet wine” (a non-alcoholic mix of liquid yot with the residue previously spooned off). Everyone dresses in his or her best clothes and pays respect by bowing to the elders in the family. Small treats of foods and gifts of money are given to the children. Families and close friends visit one another; those in mourning may receive visitors but do not pay calls.

Bibim-bab is a specialty dish often prepared for festive nights and New Year’s. A variety of mixed fresh and dried vegetables are individually cooked and carefully shredded together with a beef and egg pancake; each of the ingredients is artistically arranged on a rice bowl and is mixed just before eating. This colorful and substantial dish becomes a meal with soup and kimchi.

On special occasions as always, Korean children are taught to drop their eyes to show respect, and always cup both hands when receiving any gift, sweet, or special treat. (Koreans stare into each other’s eyes only in anger). While festive occasions are times of happy chatter, there is always a hush when the trays of foods are served, for Koreans prefer to give their attention to the food at hand rather than to converse while eating.

In Korea most traditional holidays are based on the seasonal farming cycle and the dates are from the lunar calendar. In the villages these festive days are observed as in olden times but in the towns and cities and amongst emigrant Koreans, the observance of the holidays varies greatly. Some will prepare the festive foods out of nostalgia and enjoy them with family and close friends, others will retain the ancient traditions of ancestor tributes, while many take the occasion as a day of rest or partying. There are few Korean homes, however, that do not keep a traditional lunar calendar with the special occasions clearly marked.

The fifteenth day of the first month on the lunar calendar is celebrated with singing and dancing and wrestling contests (ssirum). This is called Taeborum or Dongsin-je. The first full moon of the new year is called Dal-magi or Talmaji and is celebrated by torch-light parades to the highest hill in the area to view the moon clearly while huge bonfires are lit expressing hopes for fruitful crops, longevity and the good things of life.

Cold Food Day or Hansik is celebrated approximately 105 days after the winter solstice. People offer tributes of wine and cold foods near the graves of their ancestors; later, the foods and wine are eaten by the family picnic style. In some areas the festival is marked by tree planting. Later in the same month some homes mark Buddha’s birthday by processions, banners, and lanterns; some shrines and homes are specially decorated as well.

Tano is a day of sports events, including wrestling for the men, contests of seesawing for the women, and swinging for the children. It. is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Those who are too old to participate content themselves with watching and musing on the strength they enjoyed when they were younger.

The day of the full moon in the eighth month brings the beautiful harvest festival of thanksgiving called Chusok. Foods and wine are offered at the ancestral shrines. Celebrations include feasting, dancing, village bands, and much rice wine. One need not be in the countryside to enjoy and treasure the abundance of this festival, for it is celebrated everywhere.

During the traditional period of the winter solstice, women cook and sew while men enjoy a respite from the hard work of the fields. On Dongii, the day of the winter solstice, foods are prepared with red beans both in juk (porridges of rice) and in kuk (soups). Special sweet cakes made with glutinous rice also mark the day.

Korean Christians mark Christmas in quiet family gatherings. Many attend church services. For those living in Korea, this season is their winter, so Koreans enjoy a “white Christmas” too.

Special and ceremonial dishes include the following: roasted chicken; oysters, sea cucumbers; soups of beef, pork, and seaweed; grilled pork, fish or beef dishes; fried eggs with pumpkin or dryfish; fried bean curd; tiny boiled bean sprouts or Chinese “flower bell”; steamed rice cakes; glutinous rice cakes; kimchi; pumpkin, flour-dipped and fried; yot; white rice; sweet wine and varieties of wine spirits.

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