Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ddeok (Korean Rice Cake)

떡 (rice cake) can be traced back to the bronze age in Korea. In the past it was considered a court cuisine or a noble's food because of the amount of preparation time required in making it. Peasants could not make the rice cake as the making was labor intensive and they often barely could survive on the simple fare they could produce from long hours in the fields, they had no time for making delicacies. Peasants also at times had limited access to rice, so even if having the time, supplies were unavailable. And then of course, the peasant class restricted by the yangban class to what was deemed as lower class foods and 떡 was considered to be food only to be eaten by statused individuals.

Over time, 떡 became a part of ritual, ceremonial and feast foods. When it became acceptable for peasants to eat it is not known as almost nil documentation was made by or on the illiterate lower classes. Yet, some of the rituals that 떡 became very much a part of are 설날, Lunar New Year's day, Korea's biggest holiday. The ritual food is served in the form of 떡국 (rice cake soup), and after eating the rice cake soup on New Year's day, people are considered to age another year - collective eating and collective aging. [Korean age is still determined by the lunar new year. For example, a baby is one year of age at birth due to the 10 months (Korean belief) of gestation, so a baby born in fall can be just a few wee months old and still be said to be two years of age on the babe's first lunar new year's.]

추석, Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving Day or Harvest Mood Day, is Korea's second largest holiday after 설날. Rice cakes also play a big role in this holiday. The rice cakes are not served in soup but are various in flavor and design, however, in shape they are round, symbolizing the moon. This day is for "prayers" under, perhaps to, the full moon on its closest orbit to the earth. "Prayers" are thanksgivings for the fortunes for the past year and entreaties for good fortunes for the coming year. Many other Asian cultures have moon-shaped cakes on this full moon day also.

떡 is a ceremonial food also and is served at birthdays. Originally people didn't have big birthday celebrations but now individual birthdays are popularly celebrated and what better food to give than a glutinous food that symbolizes 'stickiness', the wish for luck to 'stick' to that person for their upcoming new year of life.

Weddings serve rice cakes, probably also related to the wish for wish for luck to 'stick' to the bride and groom.

And so today, with rice cakes symbolizing the wish for luck to stick to someone, rice cakes elegantly packaged make wonderful personal gifts for many events. In fact, airport terminals in both Korea and Japan stock large selections of fancy rice cakes packaged in various sizes and in huge assortment. I wouldn't be surprised if China and Taiwan also celebrated the indirect wish for luck on people through the giving of rice cakes, especially because rice cakes now come in colors and shapes that grace banquets, table displays as well as the too-popular gift boxes.

Four Primary Types of Rice Cakes

steamed ddeok

pounded ddeok

shaped ddeok

pan-fried ddeok

The majority of this information was compiled by Kim So-jeong and Park Do-young in their presentation on how food and culture are intimately entertwined. Excellent presentation!

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