Seollal—a celebration of traditional Korean food

by - 25 January

Today is Seollal—one of the most celebrated traditional and national holidays in Korea. While the majority of the countries across the globe are observing the New Year every 1st of January, Koreans celebrate the beginning of the year on the second new moon after the winter solstice which in general is around January or February and usually lasts for three days: the day of, before and after the Korean New Year.

This year, Seollal falls on January 25 in which the celebration of the Lunar New Year is particularly special as we will all welcome another decade with the ‘Year of the White Mouse.’ Based on the twelve animal deities, the mouse is the first animal guardian in the deities generally known as Sibijisin, or the ‘Twelve Gods of the Earth,’ which changes every year over the cycle of 12 years. Characterized by the rodent’s wit, cleverness, intelligence and flexibility, 2020 will be about fortune and personality.

A set of traditional Korean rice cakes which include  injeolmi (rice cakes coated with roasted bean powder), gyeongdan (rice cake balls made of glutinous rice flour and filled with various sweetened fillings), and yaksik (Korean sweetened rice bars with dried fruits and various nuts).
Seollal traditions, family customs and foods

Seollal is considered as Korea’s most important family occasion in which many Koreans leave the city to spend the holidays to travel and visit their families and relatives in their hometowns. During this time, every family pay respect to their ancestors through an ancestral rites called the charye which is traditionally observed early in the morning of the official day of Seollal. All family members and relatives in their traditional Korean dress hanbok, or special dress for the occasion, gather to perform this important practice of the Seollal customs and traditions that many Koreans value up until this day. The ritual begins with the preparation of traditional foods that are set on the table as offerings. Common ritual foods include rice, rice cakes, meat, dried fish, fruits, vegetables, and traditional liquors. As the table for charye is set, in the order of the oldest to the youngest, all family members perform traditional bows to pay respect to the spirits of their ancestors and pray for the well-being of the family. Following the ritual of bows, the family gathers to feast on the food prepared for the rites and for everyone to enjoy.

After the ancestral rites, the younger ones will give their parents and the elderly gratitude and their New Year’s wishes through a deep formal bow or formal greeting custom called the sebae. The elders will then give their children Seollal gifts in return which they often receive sebaetdon, or the New Year’s money, placed in an embroidered fortune pouch bokjumeoni, in addition to their blessings and or words of wisdom called dokdam in the local language.

Besides the ancestral rites, Seollal is also about family bonding wherein Korean families spend the rest of the holidays playing fun games such as the popular traditional family board game yutnori which is played with tokens and four wooden sticks, the pitch-pot tuho, hacky sack-like kicking game jegichagi, spinning Korean paengi tops, and other exciting activities as flying of kites called yeonnalligi for boys and jumping on a Korean seesaw neolttwiggi for girls; eat some more food, and catch up with family, relatives and friends by sharing one’s life stories.

A non-Korean’s celebration of Seollal through food

Celebrating the New Year is what I also look forward to each year besides the series of family birthdays and the holiday seasons. Although we traditionally observe the special occasion every January 1st based on the Gregorian calendar, it has become accustomed for me to prepare some traditional Seollal food to welcome the Lunar New Year, which falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, which is often celebrated by many Filipino-Chinese in the Philippines.

Every family occasion, I am the one who cooks along with my mother and that is why I am considering the kitchen as my second home. Since cooking is one of my hobbies and I love Korean food, I am also keeping myself busy cooking my favorite Korean dishes when Seollal comes. What are the traditional Seollal dishes that I usually cook then? Get your aprons ready and let your cooking pans heat up for some delicious traditional Korean food prepared for the Korean New Year.

First on my list is the Korean rice cake soup tteokguk, one of the representative dishes traditionally served for Seollal. The common ingredients of tteokguk include the beef brisket, thin slices of garaetteok rice cakes, spices such as garlic, onions, green onions, and whole black peppers, soup soy sauce and salt to taste, and also roasted dried seaweed gim and egg strips as garnishes. For me, preparing this most symbolic Seollal dish is quite laborious as it requires considerable effort and time to come up with a clear and tasty beef broth as it will be the soup base of the dish. The beef needs also to be tender enough to shred as toppings for the soup and which will give the tteokguk its savory taste and will compliment the chewy texture of the thinly sliced ​​rice cakes. As tteokguk varies by region, some also give the soup some twist by adding up Korean dumplings which will further enhance the flavor of the rice cake soup. Tteokguk’s clear broth is believed to clean the mind and body while the ​​rice cakes which resemble as coins is said to symbolize prosperity. Moreover, eating a bowl of tteokguk is part of the tradition and is similar to a birthday for many Koreans as it symbolizes growing a year older in the New Year.
Tteokguk, or Korean rice cake soup, is the most symbolic dishes traditionally served for Seollal. Eating a bowl of tteokguk is part of the tradition and is similar to a birthday for many Koreans as it symbolizes growing a year older in the New Year
Besides the delicious soup, I sometimes make homemade Korean dumplings mandu in which it is a symbol of good luck for the coming year. Making mandu for me is easy but it’s also time consuming as you need to wrap all the mixture into small half-moon shape dumplings. I know some of you want it fried but I prefer my Korean dumplings to be steamed as the usual and or make it into Korean dumpling soup manduguk which is also a popular food for the New Year.
A bowl of delicious manduguk, or the Korean dumpling soup.
As Seollal is such a special occasion, galbijjim is also present at our dining table. It's a classic meat dish that is cooked by braising beef short ribs in sweet and salty sauce. The preparation of this dish is as well very tedious and require hours to cook as it is necessary to repeatedly boil the short ribs with various spices until the broth is clear and the meat is tender. After boiling, the cooked short ribs are braised with a special rich sauce along with radish, carrots and sometimes potatoes that are cut into chunks of balls to usher in good luck. Galbijjim is usually served with a garnish of roasted chestnuts or various kinds of nuts to add texture to the dish. I can say that galbijjim is a family’s favorite as every time I am serving it for dinner, they all love it especially if it’s paired with freshly steamed white rice.

Another dish that I always prepare for the occasion is the Korean glass noodles mixed with beef and vegetables called japchae. It's quite similar to the all time Filipino favorite pancit, or stir-fried bihon noodles, in which the taste is also full of flavors. Although japchae is slightly sweetened with sugar and seasoned with sesame oil, the Filipino stir-fried noodles which also has vegetables and shredded boiled chicken is rather savory and the way they are prepared is a bit different. While japchae is considered a side dish and an appetizer, it is also a balanced and an auspicious Korean dish in which the noodles symbolizes long life and the combination of colorful ingredients such as the sautéed dried mushrooms, white onions, bell peppers, carrots, and blanched spinach with garnishes of fried egg strips and roasted sesame seeds symbolize prosperity. Japchae is always present on most Korean holidays and special occasions so don't forget to have some this Seollal.
The Korean glass noodles stir-fried with beef and vegetables, or japchae in the local tongue. It is considered an auspicious Seollal food in which it symbolizes long life and prosperity.
There are also many kinds of jeon, or traditional Korean pancakes, that I usually cook to celebrate the New Year like the pajeon (green onion pancakes), haemul pajeon (Korean seafood pancake), and hobak jeon (pan-fried Korean zucchini fritters) to name a few. They are basically savory pancakes made out of egg batter mixed with either chopped stalks of green onions, seafood such as clams, calamari, and oysters, or slices of zucchinis, and then it's pan fried. As these jeon are quite bland, they are enjoyed with a special dipping sauce usually a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, and roasted sesame seeds.

Also, I always make sure to serve a complete meal for my family so I am as well serving them with traditional Korean rice cakes such as injeolmi (rice cakes coated with roasted bean powder), rice cake balls gyeongdan which are made of glutinous rice flour and filled with sweetened fillings as red bean and sesame paste, and even the medicinal food yaksik, or Korean sweetened rice with dried fruits and nuts, that is actually nutritiously delicious. I am usually pairing these traditional desserts and confections with my favorite sujeonggwa, a traditional cinnamon punch made from boiling cinnamon, slices of ginger, and gotgam (dried persimmon) which is then garnished with some pine nuts.
Glasses of sujeonggwa, a traditional Korean cinnamon and persimmon punch, which is best paired with desserts and confections like injeolmi and gyeongdan.
Although the preparation of this set of traditional Seollal food takes a lot of time and hard work, for me, it is really worth the effort seeing your family enjoying all the food you have prepared for them. This Lunar New Year, I will cook some of these dishes again as this is my own way of sharing the inviting food culture of Korea that I have learned to love through the years.

I hope that you enjoyed and learned something new with this Seollal feature. On the occasion of the Korean Lunar New Year, please eat a lot and spend much of your time well with your family during the holidays. With the start of a new decade, I wish that 2020 may bless each and everyone of you abundance of health, wealth, and happiness. 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

*This article was first published on the Talk Talk Korea (“Let’s cook for Seollal: A celebration of traditional Korean food overseas,” January 23, 2020) web portal. All photos used herein are property of Annyeong Korya which are protected under applicable copyrights.

You May Also Like


Do you have something to share?