"My Korean New Year"
The Wall Street Journal, January 2010
I was 7 years old, and my family still lived in Seoul, where my two sisters and I had been born. Seollal, the New Year's Day of the lunar calendar, is one of South Korea's most significant holidays. The busy nation rests for three days for family reunions, New Year's greetings and scrumptious feast dishes.
The holiday is celebrated in similar fashion by many Asian communities that follow the lunar calendar, from the Vietnamese who observe Tet to the Chinese who sometimes refer to it as Spring Festival to the Koreans and their Seollal. This year the Lunar New Year begins on Feb. 14.
I had been given an especially lovely traditional hanbok to wear that year. The short jacket was a creamy satin trimmed in blue, closing in the front with a tricky sash that my mother had to tie for me. The front panel of the blue floor-skimming skirt was hand-embroidered with red plum blossoms. My shoes were like rainbow-striped miniature canoes. Of the three girls, I was the shy, middle one with wispy hair and a squint, but in that dress, I felt as bold as an ornamental red-cheeked Korean bride doll.
My sisters Myung Jin and Sang Jin, ages 9 and 5, were equally resplendent in their hanboks, and together we raced to the house of our uncle, Lee Ji Choon, heedless of our mother's instructions that young ladies did not run this way. My mom, Mi Hwa, and my dad, Boo Choon, walked leisurely behind us wearing their woolen coats over their hanboks.
The three of us girls had wound our voluminous skirts against our winter-chapped legs to run the 10 blocks from our house to Uncle's -- puffs of frozen white breath trailing behind us.
We opened the front gate, cut through the stone courtyard and burst into the house -- its delectable aromas embracing us. The day before, Mom had gone food shopping with my aunt, Jung Soon Duk, and all night, the two sisters-in-law had cooked the Seollal breakfast with all the feast classics: galbi jjim (stewed short ribs), japchae (sweet-potato-starch noodles with julienne vegetables and beef), modeum jeon (assorted meat, fish and vegetables pan fried in a light egg batter), bindaetteok (mung-bean-flour pancakes), namul (seasoned vegetables), mandu (dumplings) and of course, the inviolable New Year's Day dish: tteokguk (rice-cake soup). In a way, tteokguk is to Seollal what the cake is to the birthday.
According to Seollal tradition, a Korean has to eat a bowl of the bone-white soup filled with coin-shaped slices of chewy rice cake in order to age a year -- a ritual far more appreciated early in life. The garnishes vary by household; my family topped our soup with seasoned shredded beef, toasted laver (thin sheets of processed seaweed), minced scallion and ribbons of omelette. Fluffy, homemade dumplings floated in our version, making it tteok mandu guk. Aunt's finely lacquered dining table was covered with gorgeous hillocks of food, and from the kitchen came sounds of the stirring of pots and the crispy rounds of mung-bean pancakes coming off the griddle.
But none of us could eat just yet.
At last, our parents, the slowpokes, arrived. Uncle lit up when he saw my father. Uncle was 27 and Dad was 16 when they left their northern hometown of Wonsan to flee the Communists in the winter of 1950. Thinking they'd be away for only a few days, they found themselves unable to return. Uncle had left behind a pregnant wife and never saw her again or met his child. Aunt was his second wife, with whom he had four children. Between the two brothers, they had lost contact with a father, mother, wife, three brothers, two sisters and an unborn baby.
At last it was time. My four cousins, already teenagers, and us little girls gathered in the immaculate living room with the grown-ups. The floor, made of clay and stone covered with traditional yellow oiled paper, was toasty from the old-style Korean ondol system that drew its under-floor warmth from the cooking stove in the kitchen. Its surface had been wiped clean by hand, and there wasn't a speck of dirt or a stray black hair to be seen. The walls were lined with black lacquered chests inlaid with mother of pearl. Jade ornaments hung from the chests' gleaming hardware like earrings on a beautiful woman.
As the family elders, Aunt and Uncle sat down on square silk floor cushions on one side of the room like monarchs, while the rest of us huddled standing on the other. The New Year's bowing would begin. The male bow is a kowtow with a head knock to the ground, and the female bow is a royal curtsy requiring some fancy footwork. First, Mom and Dad bowed, saying in unison, "May you receive abundant fortune in the New Year." Next, each of us kids bowed separately, following a strict age hierarchy, and repeated the same greeting.
Besides the awesome food, we kids looked forward to Seollal all year long, because there was no greater opportunity for cash-raising. Upon the completion of a bow, we'd receive an elder's blessing and money. A neighborhood bowing tour to honor the elders could yield a handsome purse.
My cousins and my older sister Myung Jin finished in a jiffy and collected their rewards.
Uncle and Aunt waited for me to bow. Uncle wore a traditional jacket in a dove-gray jacquard silk with indigo silk pants. He smiled at me, hoping that I would do well. His face was like my father's but with a wider chin and deeper grooves on his forehead.
I gathered the sides of my blue skirt with both hands, stepped forward gingerly on my right foot, bent each knee to the appropriate angles, lowered my noggin to the ground, and repeated the New Year's greeting that I had been practicing privately in my head all morning.
"Whaaaaaaaaaaahhh," Uncle gasped with admiration.
It was over, and I had not made a mistake.
"That was so beautiful that you get double the money," Uncle said.
He handed me an envelope that must have been prepared earlier, then withdrew more bills from his pocket.
"Whaaaaaaaaaaahhh," everyone echoed. Double money had never happened before.
Five weeks later, my family and I landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. We were no longer just Koreans, but became the immigrant variety.
That first year, we moved into a two-room rented apartment in Elmhurst in the New York City borough of Queens. In Seoul, Dad had worked as a marketing executive for a cosmetics company, and Mom had taught piano to the neighborhood children, but in America, they joined the lower end of the merchant class and ran a newspaper kiosk on 28th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. A year later, they sold the kiosk to buy a tiny wholesale jewelry business nearby, just south of Manhattan's nascent Koreatown. From Mondays to Saturdays, they sold nickel-silver earrings by the dozens to street peddlers. After being on her feet all day, at home Mom pulled her second shift -- cooking, cleaning and watching over us. With the discipline of a trained musician, she managed the daily practice of our new lives. In those years, Mom's glossy chestnut hair began to gray.
Our first American Seollal reflected our immigrant pragmatism. In Korea, Seollal remains largely celebrated according to the lunar calendar. But while the Japanese were occupying the country between 1910 and 1945, Koreans were encouraged to follow the practice of observing Jan. 1 as New Year's Day, when it's called Shinjeong. Some Koreans still do. Consequently the country now observes two different national holidays as New Year's -- one on Jan. 1 and the other according to the moon. When we moved to the U.S., Jan. 1 became our Seollal.
In our first decade in America, we didn't have extras like birthday parties or vacations. However, our parents' thrift allowed us to go from that two-room apartment to renting one with two bedrooms. Five years later, they made a down payment on a house large enough for three families in the nearby community of Maspeth. We lived on the second floor and rented out the top and bottom floors. We always had good school clothes, sneakers and warm coats, so when there was no money for new hanboks, my sisters and I didn't mention it. In America, we lost visits to Uncle's house, the lunar calendar date and the lovely silk dresses. Nevertheless, the bowing and the breakfast remained. Mom still expressed her culinary flair in our humble kitchen. She could take a discounted bag of soup bones and make a tteokguk broth that tasted like a miracle.
In the old days, before Korea's rapid industrialization fueled national prosperity in the 1960s, average folks dined on rice-cake soup only once a year. The dish is now readily available at Korean restaurants at a reasonable price. Historically, though, white rice was for the wealthy, and the soup required a great quantity of white rice to make the tubes of pounded rice cake symbolizing longevity and prosperity.
Mom grew up in a well-off household in Busan, a city on Korea's southeastern coast. As a young girl, the day before New Year's, she would take a heaping basket of white rice to the tteok-maker whose machine pounded and extruded the soft white cakes in the shape of a garden hose, called garetteok. She'd take the long tubes of still-warm cakes home, letting them dry a bit before the women in the house would slice the doughy cakes into thin ovals to drop into the soup. Traditionally, pheasant broth served as the base, but over the years people began to use less-expensive chicken. Nowadays, most households employ a quick broth made from brisket or flank steak or water flavored with dried anchovies or bonito powder.
Not my mom.
Sa-gol-pyuh (beef shin bone) costs little, and Mom spent hours, and I mean 10 or 12, simmering these knobs in intervals, depending on how long she could stay awake, because she had to continually add more water while skimming away the fat and froth till the soup was paper-white and rich enough to coat a spoon.
In America, Mom bought her sliced ovals of garetteok, but she made her own mandu -- pastry moons filled to bursting with ground beef, pork, tofu, chives, shredded zucchini, ginger and a smidge of garlic, salt and pepper. However, as a Busan native, she'll tell you that putting dumplings into the New Year's rice-cake soup was a concession she made in her marriage to a man from the opposite end of the country. As she'd pleat another dumpling, she'd say, "People from the North put mandu in everything. Well, your daddy likes it."
In Seoul, we'd eaten our meals off the low, carved jujube table, seated on Uncle and Aunt's pristine floors. In Queens, we sat on plywood chairs with loose spindles, our bounty spread over a chipped-veneer dining table. By 1985, I'd eaten nine bowls of New Year's soupin Queens when my parents bought a house in New Jersey. This time there were no tenants; we had a house to ourselves.
On their hard-won piece of American soil, Mom and Dad plowed up a patch of golf-course-worthy lawn and planted perilla (an herb belonging to the mint family), zucchini and tomatoes. Dad bought a Weber grill. Although they still worked in that dismal jewelry shop on 30th Street with huge rats in the basement bathroom, something happened when they finally crossed the George Washington Bridge from New York City into New Jersey: They began to enjoy life. The three of us finished college, and eventually were betrothed.
I brought home a young man who was half Japanese and half white American. We married in 1993, and Christopher learned how to bow on Seollal like a champ.
Three years later, there was a phone call from Seoul. During dinner, Uncle had slumped over the table. He'd died of a stroke. I had never forgotten his expectant smile on our final Seollal together, the silvery sheen of his traditional jacket, his kind-hearted boost for an awkward niece. This was the first time I saw my father cry.
In 1998, our son Sam was born. On his first Seollal, I dressed him in a scratchy hanbok when he was too young to protest the rainbow colored sleeves and pink puffy pants. Soon, Sam had three cousins. Then another call came from Seoul. Aunt had passed away.
With the onset of four grandchildren, another bit of tradition fell away. The three daughters lived in New York City and Seollal happened in New Jersey, so the breakfast became that most American of meals: brunch. Expected at 10:30 a.m. but appearing about 11, I'd ring the doorbell and stand behind Sam, my human shield against the why-are-you-late-on-Seollal-inquiry.
At my last Seollal in the U.S. in 2007, I knew I would be moving to Tokyo a few months later, so I paid closer attention to what my mother was preparing. Her head bent studiously, she was cutting up the toasted laver into slender uniform strips for the soup. Her hair, I noticed, was a glorious white crown.
At the table, Dad said grace, and the brothers-in-law, my sisters and I -- all of us in our 30s and 40s -- joked that if we passed up the rice-cake soup, we could avoid getting old -- defying the law of time through ancient Korean logic. But how do you resist Mom's rice-cake soup? The Atkins diet and aging be damned; we picked up our spoons.
My first New Year in Tokyo, I decided to brave preparing my own New Year's feast, including the centerpiece, tteok mandu guk. Over the phone, Mom recited her recipes. "So easy," she said, then adding, "There's a lot of chopping."
Her japchae requires each finely slivered vegetable -- red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, scallions -- to be saut[eacute]ed separately with olive oil, salt and black pepper. Dangmyun (the sweet-potato noodle) -- the principal ingredient of japchae -- is boiled until tender, rinsed, cut down to size, then separately saut[eacute]ed in olive oil, salt and pepper. A tender omelette is cut into julienne strips. Skirt steak cut like matchsticks is marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar and a hint of chopped garlic. This is then saut[eacute]ed separately, and removed from the pan. The slivered shiitake mushrooms are cooked in the remaining pan beef juices. What about the spinach? I asked, noting the oft-listed ingredient in several Korean cookbooks I'd been skimming. I felt her grimace over the international phone connection.
"Not beautiful," she counseled.
After all is done, the saut[eacute]ed vegetables, beef, mushroom, omelette strips and noodles are tossed lightly like a salad with a splash of fine sesame oil for fragrance. Apart from the meat seasoning, soy sauce never enters the picture, because it would muddy the flavor and color. As for the short-cut version of stir-frying all the ingredients en masse?
This will take hours, I thought.
As a competent home cook with a streak of bravado, I've cooked dinners for 30, but the notion of making Mom's Seollal menu made me wobbly and sad. Wasn't this too soon to try to do this without her?
Still I managed to pull it off. But when Mom and Dad decided to visit the next October, I was determined to get her to make the dishes so I could take notes. We went to a Korean market to buy the ingredients. Once back at the apartment, Mom and I began prepping for the Seollal meal. In no time, the fragrance of brown sugar and ginger of her galbi jjim, the stewed short ribs, filled my kitchen. A few turns of the wrist and her dumpling filling was ready. She placed a teaspoon of it onto the floury translucent pastry on her left hand and sealed it expertly using a finger dab of egg white. Rows of dumplings soon lined the tray like ivory beads on an abacus.
In places and moments, my Seollal had been lost, but still, we had this.