Last week marked the start of the lunar New Year, or seolal (설날) in Korean, and this year I got a bit more involved in the Korean side of things than in years past, which made for quite a unique experience.
I am currently an East Asian Studies major at the University of Toronto, with a focus on the Korean peninsula. So, as my major requirements stipulate, I need to be at least an “intermediate” speaker of Korean by the time I graduate, which is soon. Anyway, in the week before the new year, my Korean professor decided to have a little New Year’s party in our class.
Instead of studying Korean that day, we all brought snacks — mostly chips and Timbits and things — and played a traditional board game (I guess you can call it a board game), yutnori (윷놀이). Yutnori is a game that consists of four ornate sticks, a pad or sheet of paper with a square and X pattern that acts as a game board, and several player pieces. You throw the four sticks on the ground, and how they land dictates what you may do on the game board with your player piece. The goal is to run your piece along a path on the board; once it gets back to the starting position, you can remove your piece and you score a point. The object of the game is to be the first team or player to run all your pieces through this “gauntlet,” so to speak. I admit this is a rather haphazard description, so if you’re still confused, there is an excellent Wikipedia entry for this game at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yut.
Though our team lost the first round, we won the second, a contest for a box of Godiva chocolates, which were pretty darn tasty. While I was studying in Seoul in 2012, I saw a group of middle-aged men playing a drinking variation of the game on the side of Ansan Mountain, just behind the university. It looked like a lot of fun, so I was glad to finally be able to play. You can get your very own yutnori set at most Korean grocery stores or online for a nominal price, if you’d like to have a game of your own.
But my Korean New Year festivities didn’t end there. On the actual day (February 19), I thought it would be neat to have a proper New Year’s dinner at my house with my family, who are, of course, not Korean. In my opinion, any excuse to cook and eat tasty Korean food is a good one. A few years ago I had attempted to do the same, with some success. However, this time things were a bit different. Back in 2012 I attempted to make a traditional Korean New Year meal by myself for my parents. It consisted of the classic New Year’s staples ddeokguk (떡국; rice cake soup), galbijjim (갈비찜; short-rib stew), and a few side dishes. It was a lot of work and took several hours, as almost all of it was from scratch. In the end we feasted on a pretty good galbijjim (if I do say so myself) and a rather . . . interesting . . . but edible ddeokguk.
While I suppose this could be considered a victory of sorts, this year I decided to give it another go. And I really wanted to get it right, for this year I had a trump card — in the form of my girlfriend, who happens to be from South Korea! This was my girlfriend’s first time sitting down for dinner with my family, and she was naturally quite nervous. But as the saying goes, the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, so in hindsight I feel like this was a good introduction. I’d also like to assure you readers that I didn’t just toss the ingredients in her lap and say, “Go to work!” That would have been evil. However, she was able to offer some excellent feedback and guidance on proper seolal food preparation and serving. Also, the extra set of hands was heaven-sent.
On the day before New Year’s, after purchasing the ingredients and bringing them to my house, my girlfriend and I Skyped her family in Korea. Because of the time difference, they were conducting their New Year ceremony, as it was the morning of the 19th there. I was very nervous as I attempted to use my somewhat lacking Korean to impress my girlfriend’s mother and various uncles and aunts, who were actually very relaxed about the whole thing. In the end I thought it went pretty well, and my girlfriend thought so too, though meeting them in person will be the real test.
The next day we began cooking. We divided the work evenly: she took care of the ddeokguk and I was in charge of the galbijjim, given the success of my previous attempt. We decided to purchase the side dishes (banchan; 반찬) as well as the broth for the ddeokguk, which was basically seolleongtang (설렁탕). Seolleongtang is a milky broth that is made by boiling beef or ox bones for several hours, so buying a premade base saved a lot of time. We also bought some jeon (전), which consisted of various fried battered vegetables, egg, and crabmeat. Jeon is fairly easy to make, but as there were only two of us cooks, we purchased that as well. We bought all this from the closest Korean grocery supermarket (PAT Central in my case — I live near downtown Toronto) except for the galbi (갈비; short ribs), which we purchased from Bloor Meat Market, across the street. My girlfriend also brought some store-bought traditional snacks, yakgwa (약과) and hangwa (한과), as well as her homemade sikhye (식혜; a traditional sweet rice drink) for dessert.
We started cooking around 3:00 pm and finished around 6:30 pm, so all in all it didn’t take too long. The recipes we used were from the book Eating Korean, by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, and were quite straightforward and simple to follow. There are numerous recipes online as well that will give you great results, so feel free to experiment.
This time, with the help of my girlfriend, the ddeokguk was a great success — leaps and bounds better than the questionable concoction I had made two years prior. The broth was light and creamy and just salty enough, and she added bits of fried egg and seaweed for garnish, which was a nice visual touch and added to the flavour. The galbijjim, though a bit sweet, was tender and very satisfying. In case you’re curious, we served the galbijjim in bowls with a side of glutinous brown rice in a separate bowl. And here’s a little tip: regardless of what your recipe says, sweet corn and Korean dates are excellent garnishes for galbijjim — use ’em if you got ’em! We arranged the banchan, which consisted mostly of various root and green vegetables, as well as seaweed, so that it looked presentable. Then we served each course to my hungry family, the ddeokguk by itself and the galbijjim with the banchan and jeon.
By the time dessert was served, everyone agreed that the meal had been a great success and all were satisfied. My parents especially liked the shikhye that my girlfriend had made the day before, which went very well with the yakgwa and hangwa (I will post the recipe once she teaches it to me).
Tired of the same old routine? Like cooking? Want to incorporate as many holidays into your life as possible? Why not add the Korean lunar New Year to your list and have your very own celebration. It’s a lot of fun! Maybe next year I’ll make a Chinese meal . . .
P.S. I realize that not everyone has the benefit of a Korean supermarket relatively close to their home. However, if you know of a Chinese supermarket in your area, they may carry some Korean ingredients (the Chinese-Canadian grocery store chain T&T carries quite a selection). Korean cooking has become rather popular in other East Asian communities, especially in the past few years — definitely worth checking out.