This year 추석 Chuseok – Thanksgiving – was last Sunday, 27th September. It’s the time that many daughters-in-law around the country take a deep sigh (not me of course 😉 ) as they get ready to spend their time in the kitchen of the in-laws’ home cooking and washing up for all the visitors that turn up throughout the day
But every year it seems that more and more people are giving up the whole business of cooking and just going away on holiday instead. Or at least cutting down on the work. This year we celebrated Chuseok with my parents-in-law in the countryside in Kangwon Province where they grow their own veg on a small farm.
As the years have gone by, my mother-in-law has gradually simplified what she makes at Chuseok. We used to spend most of the day before Chuseok preparing food – from frying savoury 전 jeon pancakes to shaping the 송편 songpyeon rice cakes and filling them with various fillings such as chestnut. These days she buys the rice cakes ready-made and has also cut down on the different kinds of jeon that must be made. We are down to just the basics now but there is still a lot to do.
My mother-in-law does all the shopping and lots of preparation before we arrive. On the day before Chuseok, my job has always been to fry the jeon pancakes.This year we start with courgette (grown on the farm ) The slices of courgette are covered in flour and then dunked in a bowl of whisked eggs then fried.
Stalls at the local markets do a roaring trade selling jeon at this time of year so clearly many people don’t cook much at all. A popular stall keeper on the TV said that she usually sells 1 million won’s worth of jeon on an average day but during Chuseok she makes 10 million won! 😮
Next in the egg mix are thin slices of white fish. The jeon has to be flipped over with long chopsticks. And as we fry the jeon my mother-in-law says 뒤집어 , 뒤집어 (twi-ji-po) ‘turn them over’. So that was one of the first expressions I learned in Korean! Finally slices of the sweet potato are dipped in flour and water (not egg) and fried too.
As this year we were down to the bare bones of Chuseok, we just had 3 types of jeon: courgette (aka zucchini) white fish, and sweet potato. Then we moved on to more fish – 3 croaker fish fried whole. We used to fry 5 spring onion jeon (which were more challenging as they had to be shaped into squares not circles 😕 ) and 5 large slabs of tofu too.
We ALWAYS have 밤 (pam) raw chestnuts at chuseok and they have to be peeled. Chestnuts are falling off the trees everywhere in the countryside at this time of year. They are quite tough to peel when they are raw so it’s my father-in-law’s job to peel them.
We had 3 types of namul seasoned with salt, sesame oil and garlic:고사리 (kosari) bracken, 도라지 (toraji) bell flower, and 시금치 (shigumchi) spinach. The bracken has usually been dried so first it has to be soaked and then cooked for a while in a pan.
The bellflower is peeled and cooked and seasoned.
The spinach is blanched in boiling water, dunked in cold water, excess water squeezed out and then it’s seasoned. But my mother-in-law has always prepared this in advance.
There are always some kind of rice cakes at any event and for chuseok we have 송편 songpyeon rice cakes. My mother-in-law used to make the rice cake and fill them herself but over the last few years she has started to buy them. Often they come in several colours – pink, green, white, and purple etc. but this year ours were white. They are steamed with pine needles and then you have to separate them and plate them. see some colourful songpyeon in pine needles from previous years here I quite like the white ones though.
My mother-in-law used to always use the special dishes for memorial services – 제기 (chei-gi) made of brass (or wood as in our case) This meant that there was a huge amount of washing up as those dishes can only be used for the memorial table (차롓상 cha rye sang). So after bowing to the ancestors, all the food would have to be plated up again into regular dishes. This meant double the washing up.
But these days we just put the food straight into regular dishes…I put a picture up a few years ago of our Chuseok in Seoul here when we used to use the chei-gi dishes.
The food has to be plated neatly and then laid out in a specific order on the cha rye table. This seems to be the role of the men of the family. So Mr Kim is now in charge of this job. Generally speaking, fruit is laid at the front of the table.
There should be an odd number of fruit (or anything for that matter) on a plate, so we have 5 apples, 1 melon, 3 Asian pairs, and 1 HUGE 참외 cham wei oriental melon that was given by a neighbour! The tops and bottoms are sliced off the fruit and presented to the ancestors ….
We always have 대추 (taechu) jujube and 밤 (pam) raw chestnuts which also go at the front of the table. At other times of the year the jujube might be dried but now they are fresh. Also known as Korean dates they remind me of crab apples but without their sourness. Jujube can be eaten fresh just as they are but when they are dried they turn completely red and shrivelled and are cooked with rice or used to make tea amongst other things. (We came home with plenty of leftovers and I’m nibbling on a jujube as I write 😉
Behind the fruit sits the namuls and jeon, meat and fish. Then at the back the table is set with chopsticks and spoons with the soup and rice dishes (and alcohol) for the ancestors. My mother-in-law always put out three sets: one for Mr Kim’s paternal grandfather, one for his paternal grandmother, and one for all the other ancestors.
The 차례 cha rye memorial service is carried out early on Chuseok morning. I got up at 6:30 am but I think my mother-in-law had been up since 5am. Everything was plated up and laid out on the table before we carried out the two bows for the cha rye.
Later all the dishes were taken back into the kitchen where we had breakfast. So we were done and dusted by 9:30 am and all that was left to be said was, “so what do we do now?” (See what happens when you get up so early?)
We decided to take the one hour drive to the nearby town of Sokcho (Kangwon Province) which has the beautiful national park and the mountain of Seoraksan. However, as we had feared, we were certainly not the only people in the area who decided to do this. So it was pretty hectic ….