As a Seoul born, Korean American raised on the west coast of the United States, I always felt like I had a foot in both the U.S. and Korea. To help keep this bridge and connection strong, my Korean American father and immigrant mother turned to food and Korean holidays (which almost always revolve around food). My favorite one was always Chuseok, which translates to “Autumn Eve,” “Korean Harvest Festival,” and “Korean Thanksgiving,” because it marked the end of summer and the start of fall.
When Is Chuseok and How Is It Celebrated?
Holidays in Korea revolve around the lunar calendar so the dates change every year (on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, Chuseok 2020 will be on Oct. 1). In South Korea, almost everyone takes several days off to celebrate with their family, whether it’s going on a holiday somewhere close or returning to their gohyang (hometown).
At work, it’s customary to give and receive food gifts, whether it’s a box of carefully wrapped fruit (most likely bae, the Korean pear, which becomes even more expensive during the holidays), or a gift box of Spam (we love Spam), or even a bottle of vitamins (often gifted by bosses to their employees).
Historically, Koreans gifted necessities, such as sugar and sesame seeds, to one another. Today, if you were to visit the grocery store or market during the weeks leading up to Chuseok, you would see hordes of Koreans buying several prepackaged food gifts to spread around.
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There is an ancestor worship component to this holiday as well, but as more and more Koreans grow distant from their Confucian past, these traditions are slowly disappearing.
The traditional foods that surround this holiday, however, still remain strong and symbolic. Here are some of the signature Chuseok staples:
Jeon can loosely be described as Korean pancakes. This dish is what I call an “everything dish.” It can literally be cooked with any main ingredient and can be eaten at all hours of the day, whether it’s for breakfast or as banchan (Korean side dish), or as anju, food served with Korean alcohol like makgeolli.
A jeon is any dish that’s made by seasoning a vegetable or source of protein (tofu, fish or seafood, meat, poultry) with salt and pepper, coating it in flour, dipping it in an egg wash, and gently frying it in a pan. There’s also a sweet dessert version sometimes made with edible flowers. Jeon was widely used in royal Korean court cuisine and is still an important dish in any ancestor worship food spread.
Today, it’s enjoyed by everyone and like kimchi, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of variations.
I always knew when my dad was cooking galbi-jjim because the house smelled like heaven: a sweet, buttery, soy sauce aroma filled the whole space. This dish has always been traditionally eaten on Chuseok. Jjim translates to a steamed dish and this one is made with galbi (short rib). The other main ingredients are soy sauce, garlic, sugar, jujube, carrots, chestnuts, and soegi mushrooms.
Because the ingredients were historically hard to source and the dish itself required a few days of preparation and cooking, it has always been considered an expensive dish. The perfect galbi-jjim should have meat melting on your tongue.
Songpyeon Rice Cake (송편)
If I had to choose one food to represent Chuseok, it would be the songpyeon, a rice cake that’s shaped like the half-moon.The reason this rice cake is so special is because it traditionally requires steaming with pine needles (“song” of songpyeon translates to pine tree). The outside texture is perfectly chewy and on the inside, it is filled with ingredients such as honey, sesame seeds, red beans, and chestnut.
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These fillings were historically expensive and hard to come by, so rice cakes were often reserved for special occasions. Growing up, I used to help my grandma make them at home, a common activity in most Korean households. The idea is always to make enough to share with neighbors and friends. For those who can’t find the ingredients or the know-how, fear not. All the tteok-jip (rice cake shops) sell them, too!
Pro tip: I personally think these rice cakes are best when warm.
Japchae is a labor-intensive dish that has been around for centuries. What most people don’t know is that it used to be made without noodles. The addition of glass noodles (made from sweet potatoes) is, in fact, quite recent as restaurant owners wanted to create a more filling dish. All of the vegetables and perfectly seasoned beef are cooked separately and then mixed in with the cooked noodles.
Chung Jung One Sweet Potato Glass Noodles, 3 packs for $7.99 from Amazon
These also happen to be gluten-free.
Japchae is widely consumed, but there’s something about eating it on Chuseok that makes the dish taste even better (if that’s even possible, as it’s amazing already). The magic of japchae is about the balance of flavors, colors, and textures.
Bae (배), Korean Pear
During the month of September, Koreans, both abroad and in Korea, will eat a surplus of this fruit because it’s become a tradition to gift bae during Chuseok. With the rise in popularity of kimchi fridges (special fridges that are optimal for kimchi preservation) in homes, fruits last even longer! Bae, Korean pears, are large and perfectly round. They are crunchy but ridiculously sweet and juicy, and great eaten alone, but Koreans also use this fruit to help marinate beef and make healing drinks. Don’t be surprised if your Korean friends serve you just fruit for dessert. You’ll also notice that almost always, Koreans cut their fruit and serve it with a fork.
Melissa's Produce Asian Pears, 4 for $45 from Goldbelly
These also go by this more generic name in many western supermarkets.
Regardless of how you celebrate, the idea of Chuseok is to celebrate the harvest, cook, and eat well with family. As the Koreans say, 추석 잘 보내세요! or Happy Chuseok!
Header image courtesy of TongRo Images Inc / Getty Images