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Korean Lunar New Year Seollal Tteokguk

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Lunar New Years past and present: how rice cake soup cured my holiday dread

    Heading into the first couple months of the new year, all holiday-induced stress and winter sales jingles begin to wind down. Any empty hype around self-deluding resolutions makes way for the work we decide matters enough to us to actually do it. And the peppermint-infused holiday spirit dissipates into the gray mornings of January. Until the first new moon when local Asian markets suddenly get a bit busier.

    Lunar New Years of the past

    Having grown up in the dark ages, before there were zodiac-themed Lego sets or cheongsam-wearing Barbies, I don’t remember the bright red, heavy commercialization you see painted across the internet nowadays. At school, maybe someone’s mom would come in either with a plate of songpyeon for the class to share or to attempt to conduct a room full of mouths unfamiliar with the construction of tonal languages to say, “Kung Hei Fat Choi.”

    It wasn’t until towards the end of college that it even occurred to me to wonder why my own family had never celebrated Lunar New Year, or Seollal to Koreans. I grew up accepting that it was mostly a Chinese holiday and shrugging off the cultural gaps between me and half my ancestry. It took the curiosity and guilt of an early-20s reckoning with racial identity to figure out that, as it turns out, we had celebrated. For many years.

    Every winter, my dad’s mom, or Halmoni, would invite me, my dad, my mother and brother over around late January or early February for a hot bowl of tteokguk, or rice cake soup, and an immaculate tower of carefully sliced fruits. At the front door lay slip-on house slippers in my parents’ sizes that they would change into as we entered the house, while Halmoni quietly scuffed along the kitchen floor in the next room, busily chopping and preparing. Knowing it was one of the few Korean foods at the time my little brother would gleefully inhale, she would give him an extra helping of chewy tteok. And we sat and ate, occasionally sharing a recent family success but mostly in silence, for about an hour. 

    I didn’t ever process why we did this or what the exact components of the interaction were or even that it seemed to happen around the same time every year. I just took for granted that it happened. No fanfare or complicated rituals — just good food and family. I hadn’t made the connection between my third culture conscious expectation as an adult that I be able to provide some sort of anthropological explanation of what the holiday was, and the childhood version of myself who was suddenly and viscerally reawakened by the sounds of slippers on linoleum kitchen floors, the smell of warm brisket soup and garlic sesame oil, or the taste of those perfectly round, white rice cakes. 

    Across the chasmic language and generational barriers, my Halmoni and I had few ways of communicating directly with one another, but I processed countless memories of fruit plates made for five, consisting of 50% kiwi — my favorite fruit that even I am too cheap to buy more than two to three times a year.

    Lunar New Years of the present

    Several years after she had passed, when I moved into my first lonely New York apartment, I scoured the blogs of other Korean moms who could help me recreate the flavors of a holiday tradition I hadn’t realized I ached for. Once a year, I began snacking on songpyeon and splurging on singo pears while attempting to refine my own recipe.

    Eventually, I began inviting a few friends to partake in what somehow became full-blown annual festivities. First, second and third generations of Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Taiwanese, Indian, Jewish and whatever other friends were willing to help out gathered in cramped Brooklyn apartments for two or three days at a time to labor in the kitchen together, sharing the foods that connected each of us to our families. 

    Weeks of planning, grocery shopping and methodical transportation of ingredients turned into several rounds of scallion pancakes, followed by har gow and steamed fish, gang hung le curries, tteokguk, mochi desserts and every variety of anything-you-can-boil-into-a-tea. In between competitive grabs for the fish sauce, some admittedly clumsy dumpling wrapping and chaotic transfers across the stove burners, we took turns shoving bites of food that reminded us of our homes into each other’s mouths. 

    As 10 a.m. became 3 p.m. became 10 p.m. became 3 a.m., people filtered in and out, many of us fell to the floor in heaps to chat and chill, pick at a guitar, flip through a book. The artists among us snapped photos of the wreckage or discussed foreign films and potential collabs, while the dancers improvised a genre of movement that was entirely their own. By the end of it all, no one could be bothered to care about the rice flour that found its way into every crack in the floor, the puddles of glassware casualties and soy sauce, the Bruce Lee-inspired yellow Jordans toppled over by the piles of shoes in the front doorway.

    None of our families could have imagined us children of immigrants celebrating in this particular way — paying unintentional respects to ancestors by carrying their recipes forward into the future, welcoming in good health and prosperity by feeding our extended makeshift family and supporting each other’s artistic endeavors or offering career advice. But in those fleeting moments, we gave permanence to tradition by taking time to be truly present in what matters. 

    Feature image via Elizabeth Lee

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