Now that Thanksgiving is close and I see themed blog posts pop up everywhere, I get conscious about the fact that we don't have a holiday of similar impact in my home country (Switzerland) and thus the meaning of Thanksgiving has, for me, totally been absorbed by the Korean Chuseok holiday instead.
Chuseok: The Korean "Autumn Eve" Thanksgiving
The Korean festivities of Chuseok take place much earlier during the year than the American Thanksgiving and aren't all that similar - but still, it's the closest equivalent I know of and it is often called the Korean Thanksgiving.
The word Chuseok means Autumn Eve. Like all traditional Korean holidays, it's celebrated according to the lunar calendar and falls on different days on the Western calendar each year.
Holiday Traditions and Family Visits during Chuseok
For most Koreans, Chuseok is the time of the year to visit family hometowns, which leads to a huge exodus out of Seoul's greater area towards the countryside. Here on Jeju Island, too, we experience this surreal three day period when, suddenly, even the small villages are filled to bursting with cars of visiting family members, and instead of the grandmothers and grandfathers, the streets are populated by their sons and daughters, dressed smartly in suits or traditional Hanbok and generally looking out of place.
We "immigrants" from the Korean mainland (or, in my case, another country) usually don't join the travel flurry. Trying to get a flight that isn't exorbitantly expensive during the Chuseok period is impossible, so everyone stays put on Jeju, working overtime because both guest houses and restaurants are in high demand during this period.
...which doesn't stop us from participating in one part of Chuseok:
This might be the main similarity between Thanksgiving and Chuseok: You're no longer able to walk after eating.
A Traditional Korean Chuseok Meal
We're not stupid enough to try and keep up with a complete traditional Chuseok feast, which requires several days of more or less constant prepping, cooking, steaming, frying, plus a horde of family members that helps with all of the above plus clean-up, but we do indulge in Korean comfort food and typical autumn favorites.
We just focus on the simple dishes!
- Steamed sweet potatoes.
- Chestnuts roasted to perfection.
- Japchae (no meat added for me), a cold noodle salad, with noodles made from sweet potatoes that are chewy and absorb the flavor of the sauce like nothing else.
- Korean pancakes "Jeon" in a variety of flavors, with each of us contributing our specialty.
- Fried foods, in general, are a favorite, and then, of course, come the rice cakes!
- I also stir-fried a couple of fresh portobello mushrooms in sesame oil.
Korean Rice Cakes "Ddeok" for Chuseok
Songpyeon are the rice cakes most typically served at Chuseok. Traditionally, these crescent moon-shaped cakes are steamed on a bed of pine needles, but, well, we left that part out and just ordered ours online to then be steamed in a plain old bamboo basket.
Songpyeon come with a variety of fillings, but my favorites have to be the sesame paste ones! They're sweet but not overly so and the warm black sesame tastes heavenly.
Vegans: Be aware that while lots of commercial Ddeok are sweetened with just sugar, the 'better' and more health-conscious sellers seem to tend to use honey as a sweetener instead.
On Jeju Island, white bean fillings are the preferred traditional Songpyeon filling, but I find those a bit hard to eat since they're so heavy and chewy.
Another staple is "Yaksik" (which actually translates into Medicine Food), a steamed dessert made from sticky rice, scented with cinnamon, and combined with Korean dates (Jujube), chestnuts, green beans, and other nuts, depending on the region and maker. I made my own Yaksik this year with ingredients I had lying around - the scent of cinnamon around the house as you steam this is mouth-watering!
Also, all these traditional desserts just go really well with a cup of coffee to offset the sweetness.
Fruits are also a traditional part of the Chuseok meals, going back to the plenty harvests this holiday celebrated. Since the fall season brings the coveted large Korean pears, as well as sweet apples and persimmons, fruits are a welcome gift everywhere.
I particularly enjoyed the soft persimmon we'd left in the freezer for a couple of days. Once frozen, the thin skin is so much easier to remove and you can eat the fruit like a sorbet ice cream with a spoon!
As you can see in my sketch, our Chuseok didn't really have one big meal to celebrate, and instead is just a lazy day full of comfort food snacks.
Terrible to stick to on a daily basis, but it's a holiday after all!
We also have visitors drop in at random times during the several days that Chuseok spans, so the snacking went on and on... It's such a relaxing time (if you don't have to travel around the country to visit ancestors' hometowns and graves, that is) and since it's earlier in the year than American Thanksgiving, often accompanied by gorgeous fall weather and great for hiking and picnics outdoors.
Chuseok Traditions and Modern Life
In recent years, we've seen a lot more (young) Koreans that, after the first day of Chuseok and the most important family meeting has concluded, choose to escape on trips alone or as a couple, and go hiking around Jeju Island to take a breather from stressful city life.
Most families have also reduced the workload of cooking for the holiday since the traditional feast (and especially making rice cakes, as some still do!) is a big strain of whoever has to host the family get-together. There are a lot more ways to order prepared ingredients in advance, and there's a growing awareness that the ever capable Korean mothers (who have to carry the brunt of work during Chuseok, even if they have jobs and obligations of their own) need a break, asap! When we visit my in-laws during Chuseok, as we did a couple years ago, the sight of all the men sitting in the living room eating and drinking and all the women working and cleaning in the kitchen is still common, even though the younger generation has started mixing it up.
Do you have a Thanksgiving or harvest festival tradition? I hope that, whenever and in whatever form it takes place, you enjoy the time!
If you're curious about Korean culture and life on Jeju Island as an expat,
here are some more of my posts:
- Art and Crafts Markets on Jeju Island
- Lazy Day on Jeju: Coffee Date and Hiking in Seogwipo
- Vegan in Korea: iHerb Staples
- Korean Weddings: Customs, Gifts, Guest Wardrobe
Thank you for reading!