Songpyeon is a cake made from rice flour with eye-catching colors and shaped like a half moon. This is a symbolic cake during the Korean Mid-Autumn Festival.
Like many countries in Asia, in Korea Chuseok is one of the two most important traditional holidays along with New Year’s Day according to the lunar calendar. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month and is called the Mid-Autumn Festival.
In the past, Chuseok was an occasion for the whole family to gather together to give thanks to ancestors for the abundant harvest of the year. Although the original meaning and purpose of the holiday has fallen out of focus as it is in modern times, Chuseok still brings people together, and like most celebrations, the delicious food of the day. Ceremony takes center stage. In Korea, Chuseok is celebrated for 3 days. On this occasion, Koreans will eat Songpyeon together.
What is songpyeon?
In Asia, countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, mooncakes are an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Just like songpyeon – a crescent moon cake that is indispensable in Chuseok in Korea. Songpyeon is a long rice cake the size of a golf ball (about 4cm) in the shape of a crescent moon with a sweet filling in the middle. The filling usually has ingredients such as roasted sesame seeds, honey, red beans, green beans, chestnuts and apples.
Traditionally, songpyeon is made at home by family members and shared with friends, relatives and neighbors. The basic dough for making songpyeon is plain rice flour, a dough made from freshly kneaded rice with termites and hot water. Kneading with hot water instead of cold water will create a much smoother and pliable rice cake texture after steaming is complete. The dough forms a substantial wrap around the filling and is shaped like a half moon.
Many stories describe why songpyeon has the shape of a half moon. The most widely accepted explanation is that the Korean ancestors thought that once the moon reached its full shape, it could only fade away while the half moon would gradually fill up — this is considered a sign of abundance and prosperity as the days go by.
Homemade songpyeon is traditionally steamed over a layer of young pine needles – picked and cleaned before Chuseok – giving the rice cakes an appealing aroma. Pine leaves also prevent the rice cakes from sticking together during the steaming process as well as prevent them from spoiling quickly thanks to the presence of a chemical compound called terpene.
On the morning of Chuseok, Koreans prepare an elaborate platter as part of the ancestral ritual. Songpyeon will be placed on the table along with other foods, including freshly harvested fruit and taro, symbolizing the quintessence of heaven and earth and gratitude for the year’s harvest.
Although they are a main dish during Chuseok, all songpyeon are not created equal. The shape, size, and composition of songpyeon vary by region.
>> See more: The indispensable gifts in the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival of Vietnamese people
The difference of songpyeon in each Seoul region and Gyeonggi province
Seoul-style songpyeon is colorful and small. Osaek songpyeon or iridescent songpyeon is traditionally dyed with natural colorants such as omija berries, gardenia seeds, wormwood and grape juice.
Potatoes and acorns are staple crops in Gangwon Province, so it’s no surprise that locals in this rugged mountain region traditionally make songpyeon with potato starch and acorn meal. When steamed, songpyeon has a clear, opaque crust. Songpyeon also have a distinct shape, they tend to be flat and have ridges when pressed down with the fingers.
Chungcheong Province is famous for its sweet pumpkin songpyeon, made from freshly harvested autumn pumpkins. Pumpkin is sliced, dried and ground into powder. Pumpkin flour is mixed with plain rice flour and hot water to form a dough. The filling can include roasted chestnuts or sesame seeds. Songpyeon pumpkins are visually appealing because they are made to look like mini pumpkins.
Songpyeon of Gyeongsang Province tends to be large and rustic looking, a far cry from the fancy rice cakes eaten in Seoul. The dough made by mixing plain rice flour with tapioca flour has a sweet and slightly bitter taste while the filling is usually made with red kidney beans or red beans.
Jeolla Province is known for its beautiful songpyeon that are dyed with natural colorants such as omija berries, gardenia seeds, wormwood or fruit juices. Each work is elaborately made by hand or pressed into molds to resemble flowers, leaves or fruits.
In Jeju Island, the traditional ingredient for making songpyeon is peas. The shape of Jeju-style songpyeon will be like a small Vietnamese thick cake, round and flat and can be concave in the middle. People often fry songpyeon in oil after steaming.