In the hush of the morning, the family gathers at the table to dip into steaming bowls of rice cake soup.
The children are shiny-eyed - dreaming of ways to spend the money they will receive from their elders after they have performed the traditional bow and greeting known as "sebae." Aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents are seated, and everyone begins the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Oval slices of snow white rice cake - called "tteok" in Korean - float in a rich beef broth. Shredded and seasoned beef and bright green onions add spice and flavor. Spoons clink against bowls as everyone enjoys each warm and chewy spoonful of their rice cake soup, called "tteokguk."
The meal marks the propitious start of one of Korea`s biggest holidays: Seollal.
Throughout the nation, households will be going through these motions on Monday morning, partaking in an age-old tradition that is embedded in one simple dish: "tteokguk."
It is the main dish placed on the ancestral table for rites that are traditionally performed in the morning. And it is this soup that adorns the breakfast table after everyone has finished performing the ancestral rites.
But when did Koreans first begin eating "tteokguk" on Seollal? And what is the cultural significance of this dish?
According to a 19th century handbook on traditions, the practice of eating rice cake soup dates back to the late 18th century. The handbook also explains the fortuitous nature of the dish. According to the text, the long white "garae" rice cake from which "tteokguk" is made symbolizes good health and longevity. Its white hue signifies purity and cleanliness. And the "tteok" that goes into the broth was originally sliced in the shape of round Korean brass coins, serving as a prayer for wealth.
Finishing one`s bowl of rice cake soup also holds great significance. As the saying goes, "In order to get one year older, you must eat your tteokguk."
In Korea, age is not measured by the actual date of birth, but by the year that one is born. Traditionally, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, you grow one year older. But in order to gain that privilege you need to eat rice cake soup.
Children eager to become full fledged adults try to cheat time by having several bowls of "tteokguk." They believe that each empty bowl counts for an additional year. This belief may stem from the custom of asking one`s age with the indirect question: "How many bowls of tteokguk have you had?"
In reality, rice cake soup is more of a southern custom. In the northern provinces of Korea,, dumpling soup is often served in place of tteokguk on Seollal. One theory behind this is that in the past rice farms in northern parts of Korea were scarce, leading to the need for a substitute.
With meat, rice and flour now abundant across South Korea, families are free to take their pick, serving either or both dishes or combining the two to create rice cake dumpling soup.
If records hold true, then the orthodox tteokguk of the past was made of pheasant or beef broth and round coin-shaped slices of rice cake. If pheasants were unavailable, chicken served as an acceptable alternative.
Tteokguk in practice is a far more versatile dish. It is refreshing as an oyster or seafood broth-based dish, healthy when slivers of tofu are added and novel when served in a soup made from shredded chicken that has been marinated in soy sauce.
Among the diverse array of tteokguk, "choraengi tteokguk" - a soup that originates from Gaeseong in North Korea - stands out.
Made from small rice cakes shaped like bottle gourds, Gaeseong`s choraengi tteokguk is stunning visually, in contrast to its simple and delicate flavors.
According to the president of Koong - a 19-year old restaurant that specializes in traditional Gaeseong dumplings and choraengi tteokguk - the dish originated from the early Joseon Dynasty, following the fall of the Goryeo Dynasty and the rise of the first Joseon king, known as Yi Seong-gye or Taejo.
Legend has it that Yi tried to kill the men of the royal family, the high officers and the families of the officers of the kingdom of Goryeo in order to stave off a revolution. The women of Gaeseong - which was the capital of Goryeo - were enraged.
There are many versions of the tale. In one version, a woman of the former Goryeo capital was slicing a long stick of rice cake. In a fit of anger towards Yi, she grabbed the center of the rice cake, creating a slight gourd shape. From that moment onwards, the women of Gaesong cut their rice cake into the shape of small bottle gourds, all the while pretending it was the neck of Yi that they were slicing.
Other theories on the unique shape of choraengi rice cakes focus more on their talisman-like qualities. The small ivory tteok is often compared to a cocoon or to a small wooden charm that was shaped like a bottle gourd.
The cocoon, which provides a seemingly endless supply of silk thread, is seen as a symbol of abundance and good fortune.
The gourd-shaped charm was fastened to the pocket strings or clothes of children to ward off evil and prevent misfortune.
By eating choraengi tteokguk then, one was praying for prosperity and good luck or warding off evil and misfortune.
Those who want to taste this propitious dish can drop by Shin Boo-won`s Koong.
"We use tteok that is made from nonglutinous rice," said Shin, 43. "At first customers may not like the taste of the tteok because it is made purely out of rice. After trying it several times, it grows on them. People say it tastes like tteok from the old days."
According to Shin, the broth is made from beef brisket and vegetables that have been boiled for 12 hours. Koong also boils their famous Gaeseong dumplings in the soup. The result is a slightly sweet, clear yet rich broth.
Passed down to Shin from her 95-year old grandmother, Lim Myeong-sook - who fled South during the Korean War - Koong retains the flavors of founder Lim`s native North Korea.
"We lived in this hanok for 10 years," said Shin of the restaurant. "It has not been reconstructed. It is over 30 years old."
Situated in the heart of Insa-dong, this small and traditional Korean establishment serves up modest bowls of rice cake soup, steamed dumplings and Korean pancakes in a homey atmosphere.
Choraengi rice cake soup and choraengi rice cake and dumpling soup cost 7,000 won. Assorted Korean pancakes cost 15,000 won. Mung bean pancakes cost 10,000 won.
Opening hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Koong will be closed on Monday, Seollal.
To get to Koong go to Anguk Subway Station Line 3, Exit 6. Walk to Insa-dong, past Ssamziegil and turn right at the Sudoh Pharmacy. For more information call (02) 733-9240 or visit www.koong.co.kr
Shin Boo-won`s tteokguk tips
According to Shin, the ideal tteokguk broth is made from the leg bones of a cow, called "sagol" in Korean. However that may be time consuming. As a short cut, Shin recommends stir frying slices of beef brisket with garlic and pepper.
All one needs to do after stir frying the beef is add water and boil. Then add rice cakes that have been soaked in cold water.
As a finishing touch, season the soup with soy sauce and salt, then garnish with sliced green onions.
Where to get tteok
Koong sells choraengi tteok to go. For the more common oval shaped tteok, try Togolmy`s organic rice cakes. Organically certified by the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service - a subsidiary organization of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry - Togolmy`s tteok is made from the Yeoju-based farm`s organically certified rice. The only additive is roasted salt.
Togolmy sells white rice and brown rice tteok. Shipped nationwide, one kilogram costs 10,000 won. For more information call (031) 885-1595, (080) 620-6200 or visit www.togolmy.com
By Jean Oh