Korea has traditionally been an agrarian culture and so the seasons and special days determined how well people would fare the following year. One of the treasured gifts a person could get in ancient times was a calendar that measured out the different seasons, the two solstices, and the two equinoxes. This old tradition is still practiced to this day as calendars are a common gift to give around New Year’s. The winter solstice, or Dongji, is the longest night of the year, and in old times it was a time of fear for many. However, there was hope, for the days would gradually get longer each day after Dongji. This was a holiday that was riddled with superstitions. People believed that if the weather was unusually warm on the Dongji day, it was a harbinger of plagues and death. If Dongji was very cold and snowy, the following year would have an excellent harvest.
Regional and Specialty Dongji Foods
Some people call Dongji “the Little New Year” (jageun seol), and they would have festivities and food to mark the occasion. The dishes eaten on this day were considered helpful to ward off bad spirits and, subsequently, bad health. One of the primary ingredients is pat, or red beans. It was believed that the red color would chase away evil spirits, and on Dongji a bowl would be placed in each room to keep the family safe. Some families would even take some of the red bean porridge and rub it on the walls. For those looking to protect their own bodies, people would simply eat it and luckily not bath in it. The classic red bean porridge, or patjuk, is made from Korean red beans that are soaked overnight. The beans are then boiled while being constantly stirred until they turn into a thick red porridge. Patjuk is usually garnished with glutinous rice balls, which add a soft, gratifying chewiness to this red bean dish. My favorite place to get this classic dish is at Eunma Market which has a popular food stall that specializes in patjuk. The dish is quite mild in flavor. Some people like to sweeten it with some sugar and cinnamon. Another variation is to put chewy noodles into the dish to make pat-kalguksu. The noodle version is quite chewy and filling. It is often paired with some kimchi and a chilled turnip soup.
A very sweet version is called dan-patjuk. It has a very smooth, sweet red bean paste and is usually garnished with roasted chestnuts, beans, and glutinous rice balls. A famous place in Seoul for this is The Second Best House in Seoul, which is named in homage to the owner’s mother who made the best dan-patjuk.
The royalty and members of upper society would have more elaborate foods and celebrations to commemorate Dongji. One of the most unique Dongji Foods is tarak-juk, or milk porridge. Milk would be added to rice porridge and garnished with pine nuts to make this dish. Up until around the 20th century, the drinking of milk was frowned upon for it was considered stealing food from baby cattle. The king would be prescribed this dish when he was ill or to prevent illness. To this date, tarak-juk is a very unusual dish but if you are at High 1 Ski Resort, they do offer it during the winter.
In the northern regions of the Korean Peninsula, a local Dongji food was naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in a chilled broth). It was considered fashionable to enjoy this chilled noodle dish in the winter while sitting on a heated floor as it snowed outside. In the past, the winter was the only time that this dish could be properly enjoyed for there was a lack of modern refrigeration. A place you can get the classic North Korean flavor of this dish in the winter is at Pyeongyang Myeonok over by Dongdaemun.
In the Gyeonggi Province, a regional Dongji food is cheongeo-gui (grilled herring). This fish was usually eaten in the court and by nobles and the fish was often presented as an offering during the ancestral memorial ceremony. The fish was caught in the winter and so was considered a blue food. Blue is a symbol in Korea meaning fresh and clean. Blue was also considered a noble color so eating cheongeo meant the person could expect to have a fresh and pure year. For those traveling to Gangwon Province, a popular place to visit is Gaetbae Grilled Fish. One of the problems with herring in the past was the difficulty of keeping it from spoiling, so it was also common to pickle the fish in a seasoning mix. The pickled herring would also be enjoyed on Dongji.
Dongji is a fascinating Korean holiday. It was believed that by eating the specialty Dongji foods, one could enjoy a positive and healthy new year. But if all else failed there was one other way to get rid of evil spirits: getting a Dongji-bujeok, which is a shamanistic paper talisman. For Dongji, they would write the character for snake (蛇) and hang it upside down on the walls. I think if you stick the Dongji-bujeok on with patjuk, it would double the power and make for enjoying a truly happy new year.
Recommended Places to Enjoy Dongji Foods
Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (Directions: Go out Daechi Station [Orange Line, Line 3] Exit 3)
The Second Best in Seoul
Samcheong-ro 122-1, Jongno-gu, Seoul
High 1 Ski Resort
#265, Highone-gil, Gohan-eup, Jeongseon County Gangwon Province +82-1588-7789
#26-14, Jangchung-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
Gaetbae Grilled Fish
#1023-8, Gyo-dong, Sokcho City, Gangwon Province
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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