Chuseok is Korean Thanksgiving Day in short, one of the two major holidays along with Seollal (설날 - lunar new year day). It is on August 15th by the lunar calendar and it falls on September 8th this year, the earliest Chuseok in 38 years. For people in Korea, it's a five-day holiday weekend this year. Seoul gets emptied out with people going back home and taking a long-weekend vacation, and the holiday exodus and highway traffic are equivalent of something we'd only see on the day before Thanksgiving in the states.
I started celebrating Chuseok in my own way maybe a bit too early as I went through many trials of making songpyeon (송편) of different colors and shapes to plan for the Chuseok rice cake class at the Korea Society this past Thursday. Songpyeon (송편), the half-moon shaped rice cake prepared for Chuseok, contains a wish for a better future. It's conveniently available from rice cake shops and grocery stores year-round to buy as a snack to munch on. But it's also a fun family activity for Chuseok that starts from soaking rice overnight and taking it to a rice cake shop/rice mill in the neiborhood to grind it to powder. Freshly ground rice powder get drizzled with water just enough to form a dough. Flavors and colors are usually just white or dark green from added ground mugwort (쑥 ssuk).
Times and places have changed for me. I don't live near any rice cake shops that make their rice cakes everyday so I can't get my fresh rice powder made. I also couldn't find mugwort powder from a Korean grocery store this year. What I have is a variety of colors I can play with - cocoa powder for brown, strawberry powder for pink, green tea powder (matcha powder) for geen, turmeric powder for yellow, crushed black sesame seeds for black specks. They are readily available online and from regular grocery stores. As for the rice powder, it has to be frozen rice flour from the freezer section in the Korean grocery store. The usual dry rice flour that's displayed with other flour varieties won't work for making this type of rice cake.
The tiny flower decoration mold I used was from Korea from many moons ago, but I found that a plastic straw cut to about an inch-length and a toothpick could do wonders for punching out tiny dots and making indentation for lines for decorating rice cakes. This becomes rather an arts-and-craft session with colorful doughs to play with. But then it gets better. Whatever colorful creations you put into the steamer, they will come out all shiny and better-looking after about 15 minutes of steaming. I made 6 different colored doughs (1 cup of rice flour each, meaning 6x the recipe below). If you want to try a little and taste what homemade songpyeon tastes like, you can start with 1x the recipe below. Also scroll down to the bottom to RELATED POSTS for links to my past posts on songpyeon for more ideas. I hope I get pictures from the songpyeon class soon to share with you - there were some really cute ones people made!
Celebrating Chuseok is also a good excuse to think back on the past 8 months of this year and feel grateful for everyone and everything I've come across in my life. It has certainly been an eventful year so far and I'd like to continue learning and moving forward, however small each step may be.
Thanksgiving Rice Cake (송편 song pyeon)
Yield - 6~8 rice cakes
Rice cake dough
1 cup Frozen rice flour (from the freezer section of Korean market)
1/4 teaspoon Salt
2~4 tablespoons Boiling hot water
1 tablespoon Honey
1 tablespoon Sugar
2 tablespoons Sesame seeds, toasted and crushed
Optional) Replace a portion of sesame seeds with toasted and finely chopped nuts or seeds of your choice
1 tablespoon Toasted sesame oil or neutral-tasting cooking oil
Optional) Fresh pine needles as a bed for steaming rice cakes
Color variation ideas)
* Black - 2~3 teaspoons Toasted, ground black sesame seeds
* Green - 1 teaspoon mugwort powder (쑥가루 ssuk ga ru) or green tea powder (녹차가루 nok cha ga ru)
* Pink - 1 teaspoon strawberry powder
* Brown - 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
* Yellow - 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1. Bring the frozen rice flour to room temperature by leaving it out for 30 minutes to an hour.
2. If adding any powder for color, mix into rice flour now. Mix rice flour with just enough water to form dough. Use a fork to mix at first, then use hands to knead dough until it becomes a consistency of soft play dough. Feel free to knead for a while to get a soft-chewy consistency. There is no overkneading for this dough. After 2 tablespoons for 1 cup of rice flour, sprinkle water little by little to get to the right consistency. Let it rest for 30 minutes to overnight.
3. While the dough is resting, make the filling. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt in honey. Mix in sesame seeds and any other nuts or seeds. Set aside.
4. Set up a steamer. Fill water half-way up in a deep pot and bring it up to a boil. Turn off heat and cver with the lid. It should be a steamer that sits on top of a deep pot to make sure that boiling water doesn't touch the bottom of the steamer.
5. Form a log from the dough and divide it into 6 or 8 equal pieces. Keep it covered with wet paper towel or plastic wrap to prevent the dough from drying out.
6. Take one piece, squeeze a few times then form a pocket. Fill the pocket with the filling from Step 3. Pinch the ends of the pocket to seal completely. Squeeze to remove air pockets. Gently squeeze a few times to form it into a half-moon shape.
7. In a bamboo steamer, place parchment paper. Spread out fresh pine needles if using. Place songpyeon on top of pine needles, cover the steamer with the lid and place it on top of a pot. Steam until rice cakes turn shiny (no dull spots), about 15 minutes over boiling water.
8. When it's completely cooked, lift up the parchment paper and transfer songpyeon to a plate. It is recommended to rinse songpyeon in ice-cold water quickly to cool off and get to a soft-chewy texture, but I often skip this step to be honest. Drizzle and coat oil on songpyeon so that they don't stick to one another. Toasted sesame oil is used, but if you find the flavor too strong, use a mix of sesame oil and neutral-tasting cooking oil or just cooking oil. Let rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm.
Rice cakes should be made and eaten on the same day. Any leftover should be frozen. You can microwave or re-steam the rice cake, but it won't recover the soft-chewy texture completely. Alternatively, you can let it come to room temperature and pan-fry to bring out the textures of crispy outside and sticky-soft inside.
I took the super moon picture above back in August while I was taking a walk in Central Park. Let's remember to look up tomorrow evening and find the full moon of Chuseok. Wishing all of you a bountiful, colorful season of autumn!
냉동 (naeng dong) frozen
쌀가루 (ssal ga ru) rice flour