Chuseok Traditions, Old and New

Celebrating the Korean autumn harvest half way around the world

In many American publications, Chuseok is offhandedly called “Korean Thanksgiving,” though the holiday shares much more with autumn harvest festivals across lunar calendars in East Asia and worldwide than a whitewashed celebration of America’s colonial legacy. At the same time, the diaspora experience is often one of adaptation and malleability, reinterpreting that which is readily accessible to approximate a taste of one’s ancestral home, so the comparison, however fraught, is not entirely unfounded. Rituals and recipes evolve with the movement of communities across space and time. On the eve of the holiday - arguably the biggest traditional celebration in Korea today - we spoke with a few noted Koreans and Korean Americans across the food and beverage industry about their dynamic relationship to Chuseok and its practices, especially those in and around the kitchen.

“Growing up in Korea, I always spent each Chuseok at my grandfather's with my extended family and cousins,” explains Ellia Park, restaurateur behind the two Michelin-starred Atomix, Atoboy, Naro, and Seoul Salon. “We would prepare jesa, the Korean tradition of ancestral rites, and cook and eat traditional Chuseok foods together. The day was spent over jovial, communal conversations of olden days, memories, and catching up on the year past.” Although she and her husband, chef Junghyun “JP” Park, have become synonymous with New York’s contemporary Korean dining scene, living so far from their relatives inspired them to instead share those traditions with diners. “We’ve celebrated the spirit of Chuseok at Atoboy since its opening, gifting our guests the traditional songpyeon rice cakes as a complimentary bite to introduce our culture and its sweet traditions.” With so much of today’s restaurant and hospitality culture already driven by seasonality, weaving small bites like these into the menu felt natural and exciting.

Chef Eunji Lee's Black Sesame Madeleines at Lysée

Eunji Lee, former pastry chef of Jungsik and founder of the much lauded Lysée, offered similar reminiscences of the Chuseok celebrations of her youth, rich with sensory memories: “My grandparents lived in a village surrounded by nature outside of Busan, and during the holiday season, I’d go with my parents and cousins out into the orchards to pick fresh fruit, chestnuts, Korean dates, and persimmons. My grandmother would cook the fresh chestnuts and dates, and prepare the paste to make songpyeon. They also grew sesame on their farm, so she would bring the seeds to be pressed for oil and roasted to make sesame crunch with honey.” She pauses for a moment, reflecting on the sights, sounds, and smells. “It was really very farm to table, in a homey way.”

Eunji’s aspirations in pastry took her first from Seoul to France, where she earned two degrees and created desserts for some of the most famous kitchens in Paris, but her Korean expat community remained small, and traditional ingredients were often hard to find. For the last eight years she’s been in New York, and while H-Marts abound, her personal Chuseok celebrations are still relatively simple, usually just a small dinner with friends or sharing rice cakes with her kitchen team. Yet at Lysée, she has found ways to marry her passion for French pastry techniques with Korean ingredients and flavors. Think buckwheat hot chocolate, inspired by the smells of her grandmother toasting groats in a huge iron pot, or her version of yakgwa, a cookie that is traditionally fried and soaked in a honey syrup. At Lysée she bakes hers then soaks them in a syrup that’s part honey, part maple. For Chuseok, she has prepared roasted black sesame madeleines filled with black sesame cream, evoking songpyeon in texture and taste, as well as an experimental shortbread with chestnut white chocolate ganache and roasted chestnut powder. “What I’m making is not 100% traditional, but it’s really great that I can still connect with my heritage and share that.”

Fig cheong from Queens

Tomato cheong from Queens

With most of their family in Portland, Los Angeles, and New York, Clara and Eddo Lee, the San Francisco-based duo behind the seasonal ferments brand Queens, have also embraced Chuseok as a chance to share their traditions with curious customers. “We have nabak kimchi, which is what remains from the summer kimchi right before the start of the fall harvest,” Clara explains. “It’s a water brined kimchi, so as it sits it mellows into this wonderful pickle-y flavor. Traditionally it’s consumed to help with digestion. With so much food on the table after a big harvest, it’s supposed to alleviate that feeling of like… essentially eating too much on Thanksgiving,” she says with a laugh. She and Eddo offered mainly prepared foods and banchan for takeaway at their recently shuttered superette, but during Chuseok they served select dishes for on-site consumption, like jeon. “It’s just an egg battered fritter, but there are so many different kinds. We served them on larger platter-style baskets, so people could smell them, experience them. They’re very unassuming but if you use good ingredients, good eggs, and a pinch of salt - it’s a dish that speaks of the land, and what you can get from great soil and mindful farmers.”

Queens has always aspired to celebrate the culinary traditions and elevated flavors of Korean culture with the broader San Francisco community, but as Clara and Eddo explore the next phase of their business, they find themselves asking fundamental questions about what a more sustainable future of Korean food in the US could look like. “The Bay Area is ripe with some of the most abundant, tasty, and diverse gems of this earth,” the duo wrote in a public WeFunder investor pitch for Queens. “What if we flipped things around and instead produced foundational Korean ingredients ourselves? And we did this by harnessing the local ecosystem and its abundance to produce our own Korean American, adjacent flavors and food products while drastically eliminating the carbon footprint of importing foods?”

Besides working with local farms to source hong gochu (Korean hot peppers) for gochugaru and sesame seeds to press their own oil, they’re also introducing California produce to traditional Korean preservation methods. Chunky, experimental cheongs – syrups produced by fermenting fruits in sugar – included Adriatic fig and Early Girl tomatoes, both emblematic of San Francisco summer, and a history of global exchange of ingredients and techniques. “The figs have a bit of that honey, nectar-like note that’s excellent in marinades for bulgogi or gungjung tteokbokki, which is considered the most traditional version of Korean rice cakes,” Clara explains. ”It’s a dish that was served to the king, and it predates the arrival of chiles in Korea, so it’s not spicy.”

This historically-informed but progressively-oriented perspective also pops up in their home kitchen, where this year they prepared a simple feast of Korean-style stuffed Jimmy Nardello peppers and summer squash, plus a variety of jeon. “They’re so simple in ingredients and straightforward in technique, but they’re a labor of love. Usually the jeon person is making like hundreds of them - traditionally it would be the oldest daughter in law, or the oldest son’s wife - it’s pretty time consuming, dredging, turning each one,” Clara explains. The gendered component of these traditional homestyle dishes does not go unnoticed. “We celebrated Chuseok growing up, but I don’t remember it being that festive,” Eddo admits. “Clara sort of chuckled and said that’s because you’re a dude. These days Clara and I are prepping together for our own celebration, but growing up, Chuseok was definitely the realm of the mother who prepared everything.”

Spam jeon

Desserts at Eunice Byun's potluck

For Eunice Byun, co-founder and CEO of Material Kitchen, that maternal element of Chuseok continues to shine at the dinner table, even though her immediate family didn’t do much to celebrate growing up. “As the daughter of immigrants, my parents left behind some of the Korean traditions. Quite honestly, I think they were just trying to survive,” she explains, juggling parenting with owning their own small business - a restaurant, which sparked Eunice’s love of convivial culture. It wasn’t really until Eunice was an adult with two young daughters of her own that she started to build and adopt Chuseok traditions, especially those around food and gathering. This year, she invited a handful of New York food industry friends to enjoy an abundant potluck feast including mandu, gimbap, and spam jeon. Her sister prepared japchae, a Chuseok staple and one of her mom’s specialties that was “like a glimpse of home with every bite.”

Eunice still praises her mother’s cooking, but she and her husband have embraced the adaptability of their Korean family recipes. “It's almost like muscle memory,” she remarks. “You know how it's supposed to taste and can season it as such. What I love though is that so many families add little twists to their dishes. My mom loved adding canned sardines to our kimchi jjigae growing up, whereas my mother-in-law was a purist and stuck to the kimchi and pork combo. Our family recipes are like little thumbprints, unique in their own ways.”