This year, Koreans celebrate their New Year or Seollal on February 1, one of the most important holidays in their calendar. The holiday season lasts for three days, from the day before to New Year’s Day and the day after. The celebratory feast usually includes white rice cake soup, traditional sweets, fresh seasonal fruits as well as sweet drinks. The following food and drink experts share more about their traditions.
Olivia Lee, founder of SoGoodK, supplier of high-end Korean products
Olivia Lee, who was born and raised in Daejeon, Korea, has fond memories of the new year at home. “Growing up in a big family in Korea, our relatives would visit my family, and we would get together and perform ancestral rituals. Children will usually perform the 세배 (sebae) as a form of respect towards their elders, who in return will introduce them to 세뱃돈 (sebaetdon), which is similar to Chinese red packets (a pow). Sebae is an act of kneeling and bowing, and wishing elders “새해 복 많이 받으세요 (SaeHae Bok Mani Badeuseayo)”, which means “to have a lot of luck in the new year”.
This year, the culinary advisor married to chef Sébastien Lepinoy des Amis will prepare her version of tteokguk, or rice cake soup cooked in beef broth with meat and seaweed. She will also jeon or Korean pancake, either with meat or vegetables, mixed with flour and eggs.
Back in Korea, Olivia used to invite her family and friends over for a meal on New Year’s Day. She would cook seafood like abalone and fish as they are “firmer and fresher during the winter season”. Says the training leader, “one of my specialties is galbi jjim (braised short ribs of beef). I will add fresh abalone from Wando for a special touch.
“In Korea, during the holiday season, we eat traditional sweets called hangwa (fried snack made from glutinous rice flour and coated with gangjung or puffed rice). There are many different flavors such as pumpkin, seaweed, etc. We also eat yakgwa (fried pastry with honey and ginger) and a variety of fruits such as dried persimmons, strawberries, apples and pears. She adds, “For drinks, we will be making a special sweet cinnamon dessert punch called sujeonggwa. The drink is made with dried persimmons, cinnamon, ginger and brown sugar and is often garnished with pine nuts.
This year, the entrepreneur brought hangwa and yakgwa, handmade by a master called AhnBokJa. “These were airlifted fresh every week as they are made to order before being sent to Singapore.” During this festive season, she also brings premium Korean strawberries, Red Hyang tangerines and Hello (tangerines) by air from Jeju to Singapore every week. She adds, “We also imported fresh Wando abalone and Pungcheon eels which are rarely found in Singapore.”
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Louis Han, Chef-Owner, Nae:um
Chef Louis Han, originally from Gangnam, Seoul, has lived in Singapore for several years. Kimme’s former head chef opened his own contemporary Korean restaurant, Nae:um, in Telok Ayer in mid-2021.
The chef-restaurateur who returns to Korea this year to celebrate the New Year says that most Korean families enjoy white rice cake soup for their celebration. For them, fluffy rice cake symbolizes good health, prosperity and longevity. Louis says that Koreans eat white rice cake as a symbol of purification of body and mind to start the year. Eating it is also aging a year. His family would also include beef dishes for their celebratory meal. “I also usually drink sikhwhich is a Korean fermented rice drink, and a few types of traditional sweets,” he adds.
“For winter ingredients, I personally like to eat daikon. We can use it to make kimchi, soup, or salad. And I like the clean, sweet texture and taste. For the now we use daikon as a garnish for our fish dish,” he says.Samchi or Spanish mackerel is slow roasted and served with slow cooked daikon and a salad of pickled winter mushrooms.
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Bannie Kang, bartender and owner of Side Door
Award-winning bartender Bannie Kang and her husband, Singaporean chef Tryson Quek, opened their own private restaurant in Singapore in November 2021, after spending time in Taipei. For the past two years, Bannie, born in South Korea, has not been able to return home to Korea. Before the pandemic, she went back there at least once a year. She says, “I will cook Korean rice cake soup on the first day of the new year to continue the tradition.”
She shares, “We cook a number of traditional Korean New Year dishes, such as Korean-style pork rib stew, normally braised with Korean soy sauce and sesame oil.” There is also a rice cake soup with homemade dumplings (mandu). The vegetable broth base is simmered for four to five hours. “Traditionally, it’s the very first dish we eat on New Year’s morning.” Another dish that Koreans eat is jeon (Korean-style pancake with five colors). “There are different kinds but they are normally coated in flour then egg, and pan-fried,” she adds.
“For traditional teas, we will have sikh (fermented sweet rice drink) and sujeonggwa (cinnamon ginger tea),” says Bannie, who was named Bartenders’ Bartender 2021 in Asia’s Top 50 Bars. She adds that Koreans believe these drinks will help with digestion and offset the oiliness of food. “As for desserts, we eat different kinds of rice cakes and seasonal fruits, especially dried persimmon.”
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Gideok Kim, Junior Sous Chef of Saint Pierre
What Chef Gideok Kim misses the most during New Year’s celebrations in Korea is spending time at his grandparents’ house. “My grandmother makes the best beef bone soup (gom tang)! Although it’s not a New Year’s dish, she always made it when we visited her. He adds, “I love Singapore, but sometimes I miss the snow in Korea.”
The chef who previously worked at modern Korean restaurants Anju and Kimme says, “The most common dish we cook for Korean Lunar New Year is tteokguk or rice cake soup. There are two varieties of rice cake soup – one with dumplings or mandu, and the other is a simpler version without dumpling. Both soups are made with beef broth. He adds that some people use ground beef or sliced beef, depending on each family’s recipe.
As beef is considered expensive, it is a popular treat on these special occasions. “Tteok is white in color and often signifies a new beginning and purity. We usually use the tubular rice cakes – because they symbolize longevity – and we cut them ourselves. You can buy pre-cuts at the supermarket these days. Sliced rice cakes look like coins and signify wealth,” he explains.
One of the Korean winter ingredients that Gideok likes to cook with is burdock (ueong). “It’s an underrated ingredient. It’s available all year round but you get the best quality from January to March. The root vegetable is full of nutrients and a great source of fiber,” he says. In Korea , this sweet earthy ingredient is usually served as bench (accompaniment) in Korea. It is also known as Ueong Jorim – burdock root braised in soy sauce. He shares, “I love cooking burdock rice – it has a crispy, chewy texture and enhances the white rice. The burdock also complements juice from chicken and beef. The browned burdock infused with the broth adds a layer of depth.
He adds, “There are a few traditional desserts or snacks that we eat. The most common are yakgwa (flower-shaped cookie coated in honey), yugwa (made from glutinous rice flour) and yaksik (sweet sticky rice cake filled with honey, dried fruits, jujube and chestnut).