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“Duk Guk on New Year’s”

            Born in an agricultural town in South Korea, the informant shared the tradition of cooking and eating  떡국 (duk guk), a rice cake soup that sometimes includes dumplings called (mandu), on New Year’s day, or (Seollal). The informant explained that her first memory eating the soup was at the age of three, and it has since been so ingrained in her lifestyle that she has carried the practice over to America, where she and her family enjoy the delicacy each New Year. As the informant spoke about the yearly tradition, she was in the process of cooking dinner for her family, and she added that this felt natural to her because cooking in groups was often a social experience as well in Korea, when women could talk freely with one another.  

 

            We always eat duk guk on New Year’s. We always eat it for breakfast New Year’s morning. The tradition of making mandu in our family began when I was, eh. . .maybe seven or eight. It was always the women. The men usually gathered together in another room and drank and played cards. Duk guk is part of our inherited culture. Duk is, you know, long and a little thicker. . .it’s like a water hose, and when they actually make duk in a big kitchen or factory it’s almost as long as a water hose, too (the ones I bought at the market for you and your brother when you were kids are just always already cut up). But, when I was little we would take the really long duk home and after it hardened a little bit we would cut up in the oval shape that you see in the duk guk. The long duk symbolizes long life, which is why we eat it on New Year’s. Duk guk is made with beef broth, which we make first, and then we add the duk, and then the mandu, and then a little bit of egg, and finally we sprinkle thinly sliced seaweed over the top.

            The mandu that we put in the duk guk is a fun activity that allowed us ladies to get together. We make it in an assembly line style, and we assign who does what part depending on what they are good at―some people are better at mixing, or putting the stuffing in, or folding the dumplings. Making the mandu is where the cooks can get more artistic; each person might make them a little differently, and if you’ve been making mandu together for a long time you can tell who made what dumpling. During the mandu-making process we might be gossiping, or telling funny stories, that’s how it’s always been.

            The funny thing is that, in Korea, once you eat duk guk on New Year’s day, everyone gets one year older. So in Korea, you do not age on your birthday. . . everyone ages on New Year’s day. You might still have a small celebration on your actual birth date, but you earn one more year only on New Year’s Day. You get a year when you’re born―you’re already one year old, and then you get another year when you eat the duk. That’s why your Korean age and American age might be a little different. Oh, and didn’t I tell you? . . everyone eats duk guk.

 

            The informant’s description elegantly explains the reasoning behind why duk, the rice cake, is eaten on New Year’s. The combination of its symbolism of long life paired with the process of aging collectively on New Year’s in Korea shows that, in Korean culture, perhaps there is a muted emphasis on individual importance (i.e. a big birthday celebration for each person). This value is seen again in the dumpling-making process, as each person contributes to one dumpling, only able to express their individualism and talent in little, creative ways. The women, quite literally, expend equal amounts of energy during the cooking process, and thus the food presented to the men and rest of the family is a undoubtedly collective effort. The informant also emphasizes several times that “everyone” eats the dumpling soup, implying the link to a national identity when Koreans eat duk guk.

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