Food is one of the best doorways to discovering the significance of many Korean celebrations. I first arrived in Korea days before one of the biggest holidays, Seollal, the Luna New Year. Intrigued by the idea of what to eat in Seoul on special occasions, I set out to understand the culture behind Seollal and other important Korean holidays.
Seollal: Everyone gets one year older after eating a bowl of Tteok-Guk
A lot of food is prepared and enjoyed by families as they gather to celebrate Seollal. However, the dish that is unique and essential is Tteok-Guk.
Tteok-Guk is rice cake soup. It is eaten by everyone on the first morning of the New Year. In Korea everyone gets one year older on New Year’s Day.
Once you eat Tteok-Guk, you have ‘eaten one more year’. Many Koreans have fond childhood memories of eating this soup as quickly as possible, so they can get older the fastest! To create this soup, families make or buy rice cakes shaped like oval coins. This symbolises prosperity. The coin-shaped rice cakes are cooked in a peppery broth flavoured with either beef or, more traditionally, anchovies.
Tteok-Guk is easy to find at local cafés and supermarkets in Korea. This is what it will look like on the menu or label: 떡국 .
Sambok: You’ll feel better after a hot bowl of Samgye-Tang
Sambok is the name given to the hottest time of year. There are three days within this, called ‘dog days’, that are considered the hottest – Chobok, Jungbok and Malbok, which is the last day of Sambok. Surprisingly, the meal customarily eaten on the three hottest days is not one of Korea’s famous ice noodle dishes, or the refreshing shaved ice dessert, bingsu.
It’s Samgye-Tang, a scalding hot soup consisting of a whole chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng and a jujube berry. The soup is served in a heated black stone pot so it can continue to boil long after it has been served.
The theory goes that to feel more comfortable in the hot, humid summer, the best thing to do is raise your body temperature to meet the outside conditions. Samgye-Tang also provides many health benefits, thanks to the ginseng and jujube berry which are known to boost energy, induce relaxation and improve general wellbeing.
It’s easy to find Samgye-Tang during Sambok because many restaurants include it on their menu as a summer time special. Here’s what Samgye-Tang looks like on the menu: 삼계 탕
Chuseok: Thanksgiving is celebrated with a special feast and Songpyeon
Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving, is held during the autumn harvest. A large feast is prepared and served, first to ancestors and then to living family members. The Chuseok feast includes the best fruit, whole fish, squid, octopus, chicken, rice, many kinds of savoury pancakes and moon-shaped rice cakes called Songpyeon.
Traditionally, families would gather to make Songpyeon at home before the Chuseok feast.
These days, Songpyeon can be bought at rice cake stalls in local markets and in supermarkets. Songpyeon get their name from the pine needles that are placed underneath them when steamed. ’Song’ means pine tree. The rice cakes are filled with sweet fillings such as sesame seeds, nuts, beans and honey. They come in many beautiful colours including purple, green and yellow.
Only natural food dyes are used. The gorgeous moon-shaped Songpyeon can be found year-round, but are especially enjoyed at Chuseok. Here’s what Songpyeon will look like on the label: 송편
Birthdays: Honour your mother by eating a bowl of Miyeok-Gu
Birthdays are not especially celebrated in Korea because everyone gets a year older on the Luna New Year. However, as a tribute to their mothers, Koreans will eat a bowl of Miyeok-Guk for breakfast on the day of their actual birth.
Miyeok-Guk is chosen as the birthday soup because new mothers will eat this soup for several weeks after giving birth to provide much needed nutrients for herself and her baby. Miyeok-Guk is made with Miyeok, a kind of sea vegetable. It is surprisingly delicious and is often flavoured with beef, fish or shellfish.
You can find Miyeok-Guk at some neighbourhood cafés, however there are restaurants that specialise in it, such as OBok Miyeok. If you can find one of those, you’ll be enjoying the best and most delicious seaweed soup. Here’s what Miyeok-Guk looks like on the menu: 미역국.
If you liked learning about what to eat in Seoul on special occasions then you might like: Unmissable Foods in Xi’an, China. Are you travelling to Korea and wondering what to eat in Seoul, we definitely recommend a cooking class! Try this Korean Cooking Class in Bukchon Hanok Village.
We met a girl on the Cycle Osaka trip who took a cooking class in every country she traveled to. We were immediately inspired by her. Taking away a little piece of culture that you can replicate back home.
When we returned to Seoul, we started wondering what locals eat at home, and if you also want to know what to eat in Seoul and understand what the home cooking is like, take the same class we took: Hogan’s Korean Cooking Class. Hogan is a wonderful teacher and an even better host. You won’t have a better day in Seoul.