Chuseok: Korea’s thanksgiving harvest festival

by Great British Chefs 19 September 2021

Every autumn in Korea thousands flock back to their hometowns for a three-day holiday of thanksgiving called Chuseok, in which traditional Korean dishes play a starring role. We take a look at the traditions of this very special celebration, focusing in on the food and drink enjoyed at the festival.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

You almost certainly know about Thanksgiving in the U.S. and might remember assemblies at school celebrating the Harvest Festival in the UK, but you’re probably less aware of the major three-day holiday of thanksgiving which takes place in Korea every year. Chuseok, literally translating as ‘autumn eve’, is celebrated annually on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar and is how Koreans both thank the heavens for a bountiful harvest and look forward to a rich one the following year. For these few days, everyone in Korea takes a break from normal life and enjoys a period packed full of food, celebrations and ritual.

Believed to date back to the reign of the third king of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla over 2,000 years ago, over time Chuseok (also known as hangawi) has grown to become one of the most important periods in the Korean calendar. For these three days, almost everyone will travel back to their hometowns to celebrate Chuseok with their families (resulting in some pretty impressive traffic jams!). Once home, there are a whole host of different traditions which are typically honoured, including the ancestral memorial service Charye and Beolcho, where people tidy up and remove weeds from the graves of their ancestors in the days prior to the festival.

Once these traditional rituals have been performed, it’s time to begin the fun and games. Classic Chuseok activities might include a type of Korean wrestling known as ssireum (although these days most people choose to watch this on TV rather than taking part themselves!) and a huge tug of war, which the whole village typically takes part in, called juldarigi. The day’s events culminate in a traditional folk dance called the Ganggangsullae, which is performed beneath the full moon and involves holding hands while rotating in a big circle and singing. That’s not to forget gift-giving which over the years has become a more common feature of modern Chuseok celebrations.

Like any major holiday, Chuseok would not be the same without its own food traditions (and with all the rather physical games and dancing, having plenty to eat is essential!). A dish synonymous with Chuseok celebrations is songpyeon – distinct Korean rice cakes stuffed with chestnuts, sesame seeds and various other ingredients which are steamed over pine needles to give them a unique aroma. Crafted in the shape of half-moons to symbolise a bright future even after Chuseok has passed, they’re traditionally made by the entire family on the eve of Chuseok and eaten as part of the Charye the following day.

Songpyeon rice cakes are synonymous with Chuseok, containing all manner of sweet fillings.
Food is always a large part of Chuseok festivities, with plenty of options for feasting on luxurious foods with family.

Chuseok feasts are by no means solely about songpyeon though; it’s also a time to enjoy a wide variety of other traditional home-style dishes which are also cooked throughout the year. This might include japchae – a mushroom, onion, carrot and glass noodle stir-fry rich with sesame oil and soy sauce, sometimes adorned with Korea’s famous bulgogi (marinated beef). Jeon are a type of Korean savoury pancakes made with fish, sweet potato and courgette and are also a popular choice during the holiday, as are braised short ribs called galbi-jjim. Another hearty Chuseok centrepiece might be a dakdoritang - a spicy, braised chicken stew packed full of potatoes, carrots and onions.

Sweet foods have an equally important role to play in Chuseok and are what Korean children all look forward to during the festival. Hangwa is a type of Korean confectionery made from honey, rice flour, fruits and roots with a consistency somewhere between cake and a cookie. Coming decorated with colourful natural ingredients and patterns, it’s particularly popular as it’s both nutritious and tasty. Korean pears are also at the peak of their season during Chuseok, so they’re commonly eaten as part of the celebrations too. Unlike the pears found in the UK, Korean pears are round in shape and beautifully sweet and juicy when ripe, with a very thin skin. For this reason, the price of Korean pears has been known to go up in price by up to fifty percent at this time of year!

No celebration is complete without amazing drinks to accompany the food and fun, and there are always plenty of traditional drinks flowing at any good Chuseok party. A lightly sparkling, slightly milky rice wine called makgeolli is a classic drink to begin proceedings with, and is usually served chilled from a bowl. As the day goes on, people typically might move onto something a little stronger like soju, a Korean spirit which can be anything up to around fifty percent ABV. Baekseju, also known as sindoju, is another common alcoholic beverage drunk during Chuseok. A clear liquor made from fermenting freshly harvested rice, it’s usually flavoured with herbs including ginseng, and tends to sit at around thirteen percent ABV. For those either not old enough or not wanting to drink alcohol, there’s sikhye – a sweet rice-based soft drink which contains grains of floating rice and is also traditionally drunk from a bowl rather than a cup. Often finished with a sprinkling of pine nuts, the sweet nature of sikhye means that it’s sometimes served as a dessert.

Hangwa come in a variety of flavours, falling somewhere between a cake and a cookie.
Sikhye – a rice-based drink with grains of rice floating in it – is popular during Chuseok, traditionally drunk from a bowl.

With traditional Korean ingredients becoming more and more readily available in the UK’s many Asian supermarkets (especially in London), it’s easier than ever to recreate the tastes and flavours of Chuseok at home. But of course, while the food, the drinking, the gifts and the games are all big parts of celebrating Chuseok, more than anything it’s a time for spending time with family, for sharing and above all for being grateful for everything you have. That is why it’s one of the most important times of the year for all Koreans and something eagerly anticipated by people of all ages.

On Sunday 26 September, the Korean Cultural Centre is hosting its own Chuseok celebration in London for those wanting to experience the festival for themselves. More information can be found about the event here.

Photos courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.