It rained quite a bit last week and something in the air seems to have changed. The last few days I’ve been waking up to the most glorious autumn skies. It feels almost miraculous that the devilish summer heat we suffered for weeks on end could simply vanish without a trace overnight. The sky no longer hovers right over the rooftops; it looks as if it’s taken on a deeper hue and has lifted itself miles beyond my reach. The air is fresher, the winds are cooler, and even my skin feels tighter.
While the cooler air has me planning for my return to the States for Thanksgiving, my evening strolls these last few days served as a clear reminder that 추석 Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving was just around the corner. As a MAJOR holiday, Chuseok preparations here has been in full swing for several weeks. Everywhere I went I’d see people dressed up in hanbok selling gift sets, certain grocery and produce items I hadn’t seen before popped up in the markets, and information about the weather for this week was on the news constantly. But since I didn’t really know much about Chuseok, first I had to look it up. Based on the lunar calendar, it’s on August 15th (full moon) and it’s also called 한가위 hangawi as well. 秋夕, 추석, Chuseok is celebrated as mid-autumn festival in China and is a major holiday in Korea where families visit their hometowns to spend time together. 秋夕 means autumn (chu) evening (seok) and hangawi comes from (han) major/big, (gawi) mid/middle, signifying a big day in the middle of August or autumn. With the moon getting fuller and brighter each day my anticipation for Chuseok grew as well. As it is my first time celebrating Chuseok I was really looking forward to learning and seeing what this holiday was all about.
Well, it didn’t disappoint. There was a lot of food, family, tradition, and I tried to soak up as much of it as possible. I learned from a local friend that for many families it’s a very big affair with all the extended family members traveling from all over the country. She told me that some housewives get so exhausted from having to prepare all the food and minding everyone that they lose weight and fall ill even. Her particular family didn’t make a lot of things at home, opting to purchase ready-made sweets and dumplings and whatnot. I was lucky enough to have a couple of invitations to help prep and observe Chuseok with local families, and this morning I got to see an ancient Korean ritual called 차례 charae, 茶 (tea) 禮 (rites).
I called Chuseok Korean thanksgiving because the most likely American equivalent is Thanksgiving. But in reality, I think it’s closer to El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) in Mexico where family members gather together to remember those who passed. In Korea Chuseok is the day you pray to those spirits and and pay homage to one’s ancestors. Just as there are special customs and traditional foods served on El Dia de los Muertos, Chuseok also has particular items and order in which you have to present the food. I helped a little (very little), but mostly I observed and tried to learn.
Not everyone does this but a lot of families do 차례 charae, a ritual of inviting the ancestors’ spirits to “visit and dine” while the family thanks them for another year of good harvest. I think you also ask for their guidance and good fortune for the upcoming year as well, but maybe you do that on New Year’s..?? (I learned that you do this ritual again on January 1).
There are quite a number of things that go on the 차례상 charae table and as one could have guessed (and I observed myself), everything is prepared by the women in the family. I took some photos yesterday while I was helping out. Here are pieces of pollack ready to get a bath in egg wash and pan-fried. Ground pork mixed with onions and tofu were shaped into bite-sized patties and cooked on a griddle. There was so much food being prepared that all the burners in the kitchen were fully used, as well as the extra burners in the back kitchen. These patties and fish had to be cooked on an electric grill that was place on the floor.
Since I have limited (extremely limited) Korean cooking experience all I could do was help clean the leeks, spinach, onions, etc. My main job was peeling chestnuts and making sure there were no blemishes on them.
Meanwhile, there was fish (조기, yellow corvina/croaker) getting steamed, soup (토란탕) simmering away, and expensive Korean beef being marinated in soy sauce to make 육적.
Chicken being stewed (I know, this photo cracks me up) for 닭적.
I asked about the variety of the dishes and the ladies explained to me that there is an order to what, where, and how all the food is served. Along with required items and the order in which they all need to be placed, there are certain things you cannot do- no red pepper flakes, garlic, or red beans in the food, no peaches, and nothing that ends with the syllable 치 chi.
This is a drawing of a typical charae table I found on Naver, a Korean search engine.
Left is west and east is right according to the compass at the bottom.
Layer 1 (in front of the screen/place setting for two): noodles, rice, liquor cup, soup, spoon & chopsticks, rice, liquor cup, soup, and 송편 songpyun (special dumplings made for Chuseok)
Layer 2 (from what I can tell is for protein): has an order here of 어동육서 fish is place on the east side, meat goes to the west side. 두동미서 fish head faces east, tail goes west.
Layer 3 (tang/soups): it’s showing beef, tofu, and fish soups.
Layer 4: this layer has dried fish (has to be on the last thing on the left), three namul(s) of three different colors (시금치 spinach, 도라지 Chinese bellflower, and 고사리 bracken), soy sauce, more vegetables, and the right most item has to be 식혜 sikhae which is like Japanese amazake (sweetened rice based beverage). This order is remembered as 좌포우혜.
Layer 5 (newly harvested fruits): the order here needs to be 홍동백서, which means red colored fruits to the east, white ones on the west. Or some do it as 조율이시 from left to right, jujubes, chestnuts, pears, and persimmons.
Whew! No wonder housewives get sick after this holiday. Not only do they have travel to their hometown or to the in-laws family amidst the crowds of people who are doing the same, they have to shop and prepare all this food, feed the entire family, clean up afterwards, and make nice with everyone, too! Oh, and apparently this is when you visit the ancestors’ grave site and also call (or visit them in person with gifts) your distant relatives and those around you to wish them well.
Now for the real life charae table I got to observe…. This is what I found at 7AM this morning. It was just like the drawing! The house was buzzing with activity, and the special tables and screens were already set up.
The special Chuseok dumplings, 송편 songpyun, were steamed and ready (not done here but when/if possible, they put down a layer of pine needles when steaming). The yellow color is from sweet pumpkins and the purple hue comes from black rice. Inside you either have sesame and sugar, or white bean paste. These all had white bean paste, which the kids weren’t too keen on eating but I liked that they weren’t sweet. There were also new apples and Korean pears. I was told that for this traditional ritual, you have to present everything in odd numbers. I could see that there were 5 apples and 3 pears.
대추 jujubes and 밤 chestnuts (the ones I peeled yesterday). The white rectangles are something called 산자 sanja, which are made from rice, Korean caramel, and covered with puffed rice. I noticed that there were 3 sheets of 산자.
Also on the table were 약과 yakhwa (made from honey, flour, sesame oil, rice liquor, and deep fried) and 꽃감 ggokgam, dried persimmons, 7 each.
Let’s see what else… On the far left behind the dumplings (hard to see it here) is a butterflied and dried whole fish, 북어포, behind the pears is a bowl of mulkimchee (literally translates to “water kimchee”), and next to that is a dish composed of grilled tofu 두부적 with simmered beef, topped with a thin egg omelet. The pork patties 육전 and fish jeon 동태전 were piled high, and the 차례상 charae table was now almost set!
There were four place settings in front of the screen for the two sets of great grandparents who passed away- four small plates, four bowls of tang (soup that contained taro, Korean radish, beef, etc), four bowls of newly harvested white rice, and small cups for rice wine.
When everything was finally on the table, the candles and the incense were lit, and the front door was opened slightly ajar to allow the spirits come inside. Then the family lined up and bowed all the way down to the floor (kneeling down & foreheads to the ground) twice. While the children (boy & girl) did this along with their father and grandfather, I noticed that the wives did not join in. Like me, they just watched the ceremony from the kitchen.
They told me it was okay to take photos so I stepped out a bit to watch what happened next. First, the grandfather poured wine into the small cups, made small circles in midair with the cups twice, and placed each of them carefully on the table.
The daughter at this point was with me and the other women, watching the whole ritual from afar. When all the rice wine was offered, the men lined up for the last time and bowed down to the floor again. As the last symbolic gesture of acknowledging the spirits’ presence, bowls of water with a spoonful of rice in them were brought out and put on the table. And the chopsticks were placed on the chicken, beef, and some of the other dishes, and the spoons were placed vertically in the bowls of rice. I knew that sticking chopsticks or spoons in rice was a sign of disrespect in Korea but it wasn’t until today that I fully realized its significance. It’s only done during these traditional rituals for the spirits…
Soon after that the pieces of paper that had the names of the ancestors written on them (that’s my guess) were set on fire over the lit candles. The hot air above the candle light lifted the feather light papers way, and as I watched as they burned bright amber orange and disintegrated into the air.
What an experience! I learned so much and ate even more. My heartfelt gratitude to the Woo family for allowing me to be part of their Chuseok this year. Should you ever want me to peel chestnuts for you again, I am at your service!