Chuseok, Korea’s Ancestor Memorial Holiday, comes early this year: it will happen from September 14–16. It is the country’s most important holiday and families will travel long distances to spend time with their relatives in their hometown. This holiday has been known to cause long traffic jams—especially for those whose relatives live outside of Seoul in the southern provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang.
It is a holiday of celebration, but it can be quite stressful for the family members that have to make and bring food for the memorial service. The most important aspect of the holiday is the remembrance ceremony where families offer food such as fresh apples, fried fish, rice cake, savory pancakes, rice wine, blanched vegetables, and more. The family members honor their ancestors by bowing in front of the food and invite the deceased to partake in the essence of the food.
The main idea behind the holiday is about family and remembering the sacrifices that their elders made for the current generations to live. Chuseok is generally a private, family holiday and guests are usually not invited. It is not like what you might see in the movies regarding American Thanksgiving or Christmas. So what should international travelers do if they would like to experience Chuseok foods? I have a few suggestions.
How to Avoid Holiday Mayhem
For international travelers, during the first day of the holiday, the 14th, it’s better to stay off the highways to go to other parts of Korea. The roads tend to be backed up and traffic can be stalled for hours. If you need to travel outside of the city, it is best to take a train but buy the tickets well in advance because they tend to be sold out. On the 15th, most restaurants and stores will be closed. Buy food from the grocery store or some restaurants in advance. Seoul, a city with 10 million people, becomes a ghost town. It is really pleasant to walk around and enjoy how quiet it is. On the other hand, the tourist areas and expat districts tend to be open during Chuseok and quite vibrant. Insa-dong and Itaewon are some great areas to get food and explore.
Chuseok Foods You Should Try
Chuseok foods tend to focus on freshly-harvested fruits, rice cakes, and fish that are not cooked with garlic, chilies, onions, or leek. Strong flavors are avoided because Koreans believe that those offend the dead.
Songpyeon from Nagwon Area
Songpyeon are crescent moon shaped rice cakes that are filled with sweetened red beans or honeyed sesame seeds and steamed with fragrant pine needles. They are traditionally white or colored green because of mugwort, but you can also find them in brilliant pink, orange, and black. During the Chuseok season, rice cake shop owners wake up early and make thousands of freshly steamed rice cakes. The area of Nagwon, right next to Insa-dong and Jongno 3-ga, is very famous for these snacks. You will find at least eight different shops all competing with each other. Although some families prefer to make rice cakes at home, those sold at specialty stores are usually more luxurious because they are made with finely ground rice powder and using high-powered steam. The shops also sell elaborate tea snacks and cookies (dasik and yakgwa), which are great as gifts and snacks regardless of the season.
Nagwon Rice Cake Area
Add 444-1, Samil-daero, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Gulbi, or dried corvina fish, is one of the major ceremonial fish served during the Chuseok holidays and on ancestor's anniversaries (such as their birthday or the day of passing). This fragrant fish is pan-fried as an offering. Yeonggwang in Jeolla Province is an area famous for their fish production where ten large dried fish can go for up to 1 million won (US$900). The area is considered ideal for gulbi production because they say the combination of the top quality sea salt, wind, and sun makes for the best quality fish. Some places pack the sunbaked fish in barley because it is supposed to pull out extra moisture and add a delicate aroma. Typically, the fish is fried and served with a copious amount of side dishes. To finish off the meal, you often receive a warmed rice drink. Here are some suggestions for restaurants where you can have this meal.
Add 11, Seouleung-ro 145-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Add 12-4, Toegye-ro 27-gil, Junggu, Seoul
Fresh Fruit, Gift Sets, and More from Traditional Markets in Seoul
In the days leading up to and including the first day of Chuseok, the markets will be bustling with action. There become swarms of people shopping for fresh fruit, fish, rice cakes, savory pancakes, and so on. There are tons of samples being passed around as well. Then, on the second day, the markets will be quiet.
On the third day, the markets will start back up and many places will have sales. My foreign guests always find the packaged gift sets that include spam and cooking oil, shampoo and grooming sets, tuna fish and oil, etc. to be the most interesting. At the markets, the vegetables and fruit tend to be of the best quality since these are being offered to family ancestors who only deserve the best. I feel that at the traditional markets you can get a real sense of the holiday energy as people are busy preparing for their thanksgiving.
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