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Songpyeon, a perennial Chuseok treat

Crafted classic or done up like haute couture, the sweet stands the test of time


Songpyeon, half moon-shaped rice cakes steamed over a fragrant bed of pine needles, are synonymous with Chuseok.

Celebrated on Sept. 12 this year, the traditional harvest festival culminates with the ancestral rites, the centerpiece of which is the ceremonial table.

Come Chuseok morning and tables will be groaning with food, complete with offerings of songpyeon.

Though the delicacy is a perennial sweet, easily found in tteok shops throughout the nation, it holds great seasonal significance.

Made from newly-gathered rice, the filled tteok serve as edible emblems of the end of a good harvest.

Heaps of them, redolent of pine, were, and still are, offered up to ancestors as an expression of thanks for the abundant rewards of nature.

Many also associate the making of songpyeon with children, as it was believed that beautifully crafted songpyeon would lead to pretty daughters.

Though it is hard to know when songpyeon were first made, the tteok is believed to go back as far as the Goryeo Dynasty. The first written records of songpyeon emerged during the 17th century.

While songpyeon varies by region, in Seoul one will often find dainty and thumb-sized versions filled with a mixture of sesame seeds and sugar.

Nakwon Tteok House, located in the residential backstreets of Apgujeong-dong, has been handcrafting its bite-sized morsels for 18 years and counting.

Of no relation to the famed row of Nakwon-dong rice cake shops in northern Seoul, the shop also doubles as a rice mill where customers can bring rice to be transformed into custom-made tteok.

Modest and worn through years of business, the family-run shop is situated in Sinsa Market, a covered building that bears all the charms of those busy, bustling arcades of yore.

Piles of freshly-made songpyeon, small and glistening with sesame seed oil are a visual delight of forest green, bright ochre, deep purple and ivory hues, and come filled with black beans, red beans or sesame seeds and sugar.

“The purple ones are made with a mixture of black and white rice,” said owner Yang Hye-gyeong, 43. “The yellow ones are made with kabocha squash.”

The emerald ones are made with mugwort picked in the spring, frozen and shipped from Jeju Island because mugwort from the southern island is tender, said Yang.

One bite of those green nuggets, of the sweet filling of sesame seeds and sugar paired with the slightly bitter mugwort, is pure pleasure.

If Nakwon Tteok House specializes in a down-to-earth rendition of the Chuseok dessert, Dong Bang Mi In turns songpyeon into haute couture. 
Dong Bang Mi In draws inspiration from the fancy cuisine of the owner’s native Jinju to spin out around 10 different fruit, blossom and nut-shaped takes on the classic Chuseok treat, all crafted by hand and packed with different types of fillings for the ever-popular flower songpyeon set. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Dong Bang Mi In draws inspiration from the fancy cuisine of the owner’s native Jinju to spin out around 10 different fruit, blossom and nut-shaped takes on the classic Chuseok treat, all crafted by hand and packed with different types of fillings for the ever-popular flower songpyeon set. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

According to Dong Bang Mi In owner Kim Yang-sook, 56, her native city, Jinju, in South Gyeongsang Province boasted a highly developed gyobang culture.

Gyobang was the institution in charge of song and dance that centered around gisaeng (Korean female entertainers) during the Goryeo and Joseon periods. The flourishing of this culture in turn led to the blossoming of Jinju’s cuisine during the Joseon Dynasty. Referred to as gyobang food, this craft has been experiencing a revival.

“Pumpkin-shaped tteok were sent as wedding gifts to aristocrats,” Kim explained the beauty of her city’s traditional aristocratic food, which she said was very fancy. “I was inspired by that.”

Letting fancy take flight, a beautiful collection of blossom, fruit and nut-shaped songpyeon are created. Up to 10 shapes are filled with everything from white bean paste to fragrant crushed sesame seeds, whole red beans and mung bean paste.

Mugwort songpyeon are shaped into ridged green leaves and packed with an aromatic mixture of finely crushed sesame seeds and sugar.

Dong Bang Mi In’s highly innovative pine cone-shaped songpyeon is infused with cocoa and coffee and studded with whole red beans inside.

Fermented rice tints a blossom-shaped sweet with its blush-like hue, while purple sweet potato gives another one its violet color.

Details

● Nakwon Tteok House

Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Closed Sundays. Songpyeon cost 3,000 won for 300 grams and 10,000 won per kilogram. Available year round.

To get there go to Apgujeong Subway Station Line 3, Exit 1. Make a U-turn and walk straight past the row of Hyundai Apartment complexes until a large parking lot is reached. Turn right into the parking lot and enter into Sinsa Market.

For more information call (02) 543-3636.

● Dong Bang Mi In

Open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m daily. Closed Sundays except to hand out pre-reserved orders. Gift sets need to be ordered in advance.

Flower songpyeon sets cost 49,000 won each. Japanese apricot blossom songpyeon sets cost 39,000 won each. Available year round.

To get there go to Apgujeong Subway Station Line 3, Exit 3. Walk past the CGV theater. Turn left into the street between Shinhan Bank and the Ministop convenience store. Turn left at the first intersection. Dong Bang Mi In will be on the right.

For more information call (02) 514-7955 or visit www.ricecuisine.com

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)
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