A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Gwangju, South Korea where my late grandmother lived for most of her life. As a child, I spent many summers in Seoul and my family would travel down to Gwangju to visit her at least for a few days.
My grandmother was a head shorter than I am (and I’m only 160cm tall…) but a tough, often intimidating lady who raised her family on her own when my grandfather passed away at a young age. Moments in Gwangju were special times to connect with her, and it was my first glimpse into Korean rural life. She had farmland with rice paddies, and I remember stomping around the watery fields, shoes off, squishing the mud between my toes and wreaking havoc on the carefully ploughed rows.
Our days there were very simple compared to Seoul. As a treat, my grandmother would tint my nails using a traditional, natural dye made from the garden balsam plant. She crushed the flowers and leaves into a poultice. I slept with the paste slathered on my nails and my fingers tips covered in cling film. In the morning, my nails were a deep orangey scarlet that took months to grow out. My Seoul cousins would laugh at the quaint and old fashioned colour with their sparkly nail polish, but I loved it.
And then of course, there was the food. Of all the food I ate during those summers in Korea, the one I remember best are the sticky rice cakes that my grandmother made with a Korean herb called ssuk, or mugwort in English. Mugwort is my Proustian madeleine. I can see my grandmother grinding soaked rice and the leafy herb together into a tacky dough the colour of dark jade. She steamed rough hand-formed slices of dough and then brushed them with sesame oil. Not particularly sweet, with an earthy, herbal taste and addictive chewy bite, they are the one Korean dessert that I really love.
During my trip to Gwangju last week, I passed by a typical rice cake shop. Among the selection in their window, I spotted the deep mottled jade of rice cakes made from fresh mugwort, hurray. Of course I had to buy a pack and force my friends to try it. Bless my new Indonesian friends Ruddy and Ebet who each chowed down on a gigantic rice cake the size of my palm with a smile.
In preparation for the Chuseok holiday the shop was selling a specific kind of rice cake – songpyeon, the holiday's signature dish Chuseok is the Korean harvest festival akin to American Thanksgiving or Chinese mid-autumn festival. It’s celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the year, which means it's happening now. Songpyeon are half moon shaped rice cakes usually stuffed with ground sesame or sweetened beans and steamed on a bed of pine needles. Songpyeon literally means “pine cake”. Around this time, songpyeon can be found in all the rice cake shops, high end to low end. America has turkey, China has mooncakes, and Korea has songpyeon.
In celebration of Chuseok, here’s my recipe for songpyeon which is inspired by memories of my grandmother’s rice cake. I can’t find fresh mugwort where I am, so I use a mugwort powder that I brought back with me from Seoul. If you can’t find mugwort, you can use matcha powder for a green colour, though the taste of course will be completely different. I also made a batch with a powder made from Japanese purple sweet potato which I found at the Japanese supermarket. I am a sucker for all things violet. And I also left some plain, so I have a happy mix of colours on the plate.
I stuff my songpyeon with black sesame and honey. You can use sugar instead of honey, but honey makes the sesame stick together and much easier to handle when stuffing the songpyeon. For the pine needles, I had to go hiking on a nearby mountain, scramble underneath a barbed wire fence on a steep edge of said mountain, and pluck a few small branches from one of the few pine trees I could find. In the tropical climate that I live in, there are more palm trees than pine trees but I did manage to get a handful of pine needles. If you can’t find pine needles or don’t feel like crawling under barbed wire for them, you can also steam the rice cakes on a layer of cheesecloth instead.
During Chuseok, the tradition is for families to travel to their hometowns to honour their ancestors. I’m grateful that I had a chance to go to Gwangju right before Chuseok this year and remember my grandmother. You're also supposed to make a wish under the full moon of Chuseok for the year ahead. When I was a kid I always had a million wishes and would reel them off in my head as fast as I could, while the other kids made their one wish. I have a few wishes in mind for this year, some of which seem to be coming true already... What will you wish for?
Songpyeon – Half Moon Rice Cakes
makes 16 pieces
175g short-grain rice (Japanese or Korean)
1/8 tsp sea salt
45ml hot water
(optional) ½ Tbs ssuk powder, matcha or purple sweet potato powder
35g black sesame seeds
3 Tbs honey
pinch of sea salt
two handfuls of pine needles or cheesecloth
1 Tbs sesame oil
Soak the rice in cold water overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Then drain the rice and let it sit in the colander for an hour so the water is fully drained away. Using a food processor, grind the rice with 1 tsp cold water until it has the fine texture of flour.
In a medium bowl, add the rice flour, 1/8 tsp salt, the hot water and mix. If you’re using a coloured powder like ssuk powder, matcha or purple sweet potato powder, add this to the dough now. Knead with your hands for a few minutes until the dough is even and smooth. Cover the dough with plastic and let it rest for an hour.
Grind the black sesame until it feels like sand. In a small bowl, mix the sesame with the honey and a pinch of salt and mix well. Set aside.
To stuff the rice cakes, take 1 Tbs of dough and shape it into a ball. Make a small depression in the ball with your thumb. Place about ¼ tsp of the sesame mixture in the well, fold the dough over to cover the filling and pinch closed. Place the finished songpyeon on a tray and cover in plastic while you’re working so they don’t dry out.
Place the pine needles or cheese cloth in a bamboo steamer or double basket. Set the steamer over a pot of boiling water. In one layer, place the songpyeon into the basket on top of the pine needles or cloth. Let the songpyeon have breathing space so they don’t stick to each other. Steam for 30 minutes.
Prepare a cold water bath for the songpyeon in a bowl. When the songpyeon are finished steaming, put the songpyeon in the cold bath to halt the cooking. After a few minutes, drain the dumplings and mix them with the sesame oil.
Note: They don’t keep well in the refrigerator and become quite hard. You can resteam them if you have put them in the refrigerator, but they’re best eaten the same day.