Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Grains Of Tradition

In the country of my origin, Korea, the New Year holiday Seollal is regarded as one of the most important celebrations of the year. For Koreans, the New Year doesn’t ring in at midnight on January 1st. Instead, Seollal takes place in late January or early February, as Korean holidays are determined by the lunar calendar. While the West has already nursed their hangovers, returned to work, and broken their resolutions, Koreans anticipate the annual three-day gathering for the new year, a chance to honor their past as they head into the future.

From the traditional hanbok, a colorful dress that dates back to the 3rd century BCE to the folk game yutnori, whose origin dates back to the 1st century BCE to the performing of ancestral rites (the paying of respects to elders of the lineage) the Korean New Year is steeped in heritage, history, and family. And, of course, the vast and diverse array of traditional foods and drink are inextricable from the event. Tteokguk (pronounced duck-gewk), is the soup at the centerpiece of the New Year celebration. Without tteokguk, the New Year can’t properly begin.

The origin of tteokguk dates back over 700 years to the Chosun Dynasty in Korea. Tteok, or rice cake, the ubiquitous food in the Korean cuisine, utilized in a variety of dishes from street foods to desserts, is the main ingredient of the soup. In the past, white rice, which is used to make the cakes, was especially revered and set aside for the elite. For the common people of Korea, it was brought out only for special occasions, such as the New Year.

“The origin of tteokguk [duck-gewk] dates back over 700 years to the Chosun Dynasty in Korea.”

Now, tteokguk is synonymous with Seollal and is served in restaurants all across Korea, and now in the United States as well. Although a simple dish, it is one that is loaded with meaning. Some say the oval-shaped rice cakes are meant to represent the shape of a coin, assuring prosperity in the coming years. Others believe that it represents the sun, symbolizing the dawning of a new day. Eating tteokguk during the New Year promises good luck, and signals a year gain in age.

Tteokguk is a simple yet flavorful soup. The dense, thick, and chewy rice cake soaks up the flavor of the salty broth and provides a robust texture. Served with marinated ground beef, julienned cooked eggs, green onions, and seaweed, the savory soup is a Korean comfort food, similar to chicken-noodle soup in the West. And it’s a dish that I’ve only recently rediscovered. As I grow older, I seem intent on reconnecting with the culture that brought me up and informed my world today.

In Ashtabula, Ohio, where I grew up, my family attended a small Korean church that was at the center of the cultural community. Many Koreans immigrated there in the 1970s, and the church was the central support system. As Koreans began to integrate into American and Western society, they took on the some of the traditions of the West, like celebrating the New Year on January 1st.

Every year, I would go to church on New Year’s Eve for the weekend festivities. After eating plenty of tteokguk, a yutnori tournament occurred, and then a countdown to the New Year at midnight. Those Korean immigrants adapted to their new life and melded together two different traditions into one, and that is what I think about when I have tteokguk at the New Year.

Three years ago I reunited with the tradition of tteokguk at New Years when I decided to cook it for my wife Anna at our first New Year’s together. It was a big deal to share a part of my culture with her, and to reconnect with an important tradition that I had not experienced in a long time.

The next year, we decided to take a trip through Niagara Falls to Toronto for the New Year, and continued the tradition of eating tteokguk in Toronto’s wonderful Koreatown. The year after that we met up with Anna’s sister, and the three of us made our way to Wisconsin to visit the House on the Rock. On the way back, we stumbled into a Korean restaurant in Madison and shared a bowl of tteokguk, that year’s tradition fulfilled.

The traditions and rituals associated with holidays are celebrated universally, but we all have intimate and personal ways we make
these celebrations our own. This year, whether you celebrate the way you have always done, or you are just now starting a new tradition, I hope you enjoy all of the personal ways you ring in the New Year, especially the traditions that help reaffirm your journey and signal the potential of the future to come.

Tteokguk can be found in Korean and Asian restaurants throughout Columbus.