The Chuseok Thanksgiving holiday in autumn is the time that many daughters-in-law around the country take a deep sigh (not me of course…) as they get ready to spend time with the in-laws, 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.
As the years have gone by, my mother-in-law has simplified our Chuseok menu. 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 with a chestnut filling.
These days my mother-in-law 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. The main savoury pancakes we make are courgette, fish, and sweet potato.
My mother-in-law does all the shopping and lots of preparation before we arrive. On the day before Chuseok, my job is to fry the jeon pancakes. So first of all slices of courgette are covered in flour and then dunked in a bowl of whisked eggs and 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 pollack fish. The jeon has to be flipped over with long chopsticks. And as we fry the jeon my mother-in-law says 뒤집어 , 뒤집어 (twei-jip-o) ‘turn them over‘. That was one of the first expressions I learned in Korean!
Finally slices of sweet potato are dipped in a flour and water mix (not egg) and fried too. We used to make spring onion jeon (but these are more challenging as they have to be shaped into SQUARES not circles… )
Then the croaker fish are fried whole along with slices of tofu.
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 though when they’re raw so that’s my father-in-law’s job.
There are 3 main namul seasoned vegetables:고사리 (kosari) bracken, 도라지 (toraji) bell flower, and 시금치 (shigumchi) spinach.
THE SIGNATURE DISH OF CHUSEOK – SONGPYEON rice cakes
THE rice cake for chuseok is 송편 songpyeon.
My mother-in-law used to make the rice cakes 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 they can also be simply white. They are steamed with pine needles. 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) But 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 has to be plated up again into regular dishes. This means double the washing up.
But these days we just put the food straight into regular dishes…I put a picture up 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. There should always be an odd number on the plate.
We always have 대추 (taechu) jujube and 밤 (pam) raw chestnuts which are placed at the front of the table with the fruit. Also known as Korean dates, Jujube can be eaten fresh just as they are but when they are dried they turn completely red and shrivelled and can be cooked with rice or used to make tea.
The table must be laid out in order so behind the fruit sit the namul vegetables and jean pancakes, meat, and fish. Then at the back, the table is set with chopsticks and spoons with soup and rice, 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 usually get up around 6:30 am but my mother-in-law is up well before that. Once everything is plated up and laid out on the table we carry out the two bows for the ancestors.
Then we eat and drink.
And later do the dishes.
We can be done and dusted by 9:30 am and then all that’s left to ask is, “so what do we do now?” (See what happens when you get up too early?)
After the work is done we might go on a day trip. One time we went to Sokcho (Gangwon Province) which has a beautiful national park and the mountain of Seoraksan. But one thing to remember is that it is holiday time and everyone has the same idea. So be prepared for crowds and traffic jams…