Happy Lunar New Year! The new year according to the lunar calendar is also known as “Chinese New Year” for those of us in English-speaking countries. Koreans, just like the Chinese, traditionally followed the lunar calendar before adopting the Gregorian calendar of the west, so we Koreans refer to the same horoscopes as the Chinese. For 2014, we celebrate the Year of the Horse, and apparently it is the year of the “Blue Horse” for this cycle. According to the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the Blue Horse, unlike a regular horse horoscope character, comes around every 60 years. This is just as unique as the two other “special” horoscopes that I am aware of — The Golden Pig, which happens to be my dad, and the White Horse, which happens to be my sister.
The Lunar New Year is a very big event in Korea; it is considered the most important holiday of all, besides Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving in the fall. And holidays in Korea mean family and food, not unlike the celebratory traditions of many other cultures. So what does my family do? We make a feast. But what do Korean people make at home to feed a crowd? I am the kind of person who asks my friends from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds what their families make at home, so I thought others may be interested in what the dinner table looks like for Korean-Canadian families. So here it is.
“Kalbi” or barbecue short ribs
On the morning of the Lunar New Year, Korean families consume the obligatory serving of Tteokguk, a large bowl of sliced rice cakes swimming with garnishments of scallions, slivered fried eggs, and crispy nori flakes. In fact, in Korea you are considered not to gained another year in age unless you have eaten your yearly Tteoguk requirement. As our family gathering occurred in the evening, my dad didn’t serve tteokguk but instead offered a Korean feast typically served for guests of a Korean-Canadian households.
Korean meals always mean that there is rice and banchan, or various side dishes to accompany the meal, including the famous stinky fermented cabbage dish called kimchi. Kimchi can take many forms, though the standard kimchi type is made with cabbage and red pepper flakes. Our kimchi dish for this dinner was just the turnip kimchi though it is not unheard of to set more than two kimchi dishes at the table. Clearly, the commitment to kimchi is fiercely strong for Koreans.
“Bulgogi”, or stir-fried beef for ssam
Another common element in the Korean meal is the stew, but we skipped this dish for the night. Instead we produced a bunch of other plates including a vegetarian version of japchae, which is a glass vermicelli noodle dish made with vegetables (and small bits of beef in the traditional form). Vegetarian fried rice (“bokum bap”) was also on the menu, as well as deep-fried vegetable fritters, a mixture of julienned potatoes, carrots, and scallions dipped in a flour batter.
But the highlight of the meal for most diners was the stir-fried beef, or bulgogi, which accompanied large leaves of lettuce and hot sauce to make ssam. Ssam is becoming increasingly popular in North America due to the success of chef David Chang’s restaurant empire, Momofuku, which serves various renditions of ssam at Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Basically, ssam is a dish where the diner takes a large leave of lettuce (or other leafy green), places a spoonful of rice in the middle, then tops it with roasted or stir-fried meat, mostly beef or pork. A dollop of hot red pepper sauce tops the mound of food, and the diner then wraps the lettuce leaf into a ball and consumes the ssam with their hands. A tip for neophytes: No need to ingest the ssam in one bite! It is perfectly acceptable to take several bites to consume the ssam, unlike the rules for sushi.
Soju and lemonade for celebratory cocktails
And to wash down the meal? A cocktail of soju and lemonade. However, the elders were highly disappointed by the weak alcohol content of the imported soju bottles from Korea. The strong liquor, traditionally made with rice, was bought from the local LCBO (government-controlled liquor store in Ontario) with an alcoholic content of 19.5%. My dad was floored — “That’s not soju!” he proclaimed, referring to the 40% alcoholic content of “regular” soju from Korea. Unfortunately, the four types of soju offered at the LCBO carried no more than 19.5% alcohol. Plus, the bottles were expensive. At 360 mL, I had to fork up about $6.00 CDN which is quite the markup compared to the price of the same products in Korea.
Weak soju or not — here’s to the new year.
Fried rice, or “bokum bap”
“Jap chae” or glass noodles with vegetables
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Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto
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