Written by Cho Namhee
The sunrise of a new year is a sign of a new beginning, but in Korea where aging is deemed as a great threat, it also brings an undesirable fear to the minds of the people, at least to some extent. Among the Korean traditional festival foods, tteokguk (떡국, rice cake soup) is consumed in the New Year, hoping for a better year with a pure and refreshed mind. This traditional warm milky soup with floating coin-like rice cakes has predominantly been served on the very first morning of the year and gradually became the symbol of the addition of one year to one’s age.
It appears in literature from the late Joseon Dynasty: Dongguk-sesigi (동국세시기) and Yeolyang-sesigi (열양세시기), records of the seasonal customs of the times, both emphasized that the soup should never be missing from the table for the New Year’s guests and the ancestral rites on New Year’s. The thinly sliced white rice cakes in the soup are believed to be derived from the primitive religious idea that everything had to be solemn and pure on the day when all things start a new beginning. There are controversies in terms of the shape of the main ingredient of the soup. While some say that it resembles coins that were deliberately put as a hope for material wealth or the shape of the sun to wish for a good year, on the contrary, some argue that the shape of the rice cake naturally came from the convenience of slicing a long stick of rounded rice cake or garae-tteok (가래떡).
A bowl of traditional rice cake soup has a Korean proverb behind it that goes “kkwong daesin dak” (꿩 대신 닭, chicken instead of pheasant). Similar to the American proverb “if you can’t get a horse, ride a cow,” the saying is used when something is needed but absent, so you have to use a replacement. Pheasant soup stock was the golden recipe, but due to the rarity of the ingredient, chicken was more commonly used. Today, it is difficult to infer the origin of the proverb from the modern recipe since most tteokguk is made with either beef or a combination of beef and oysters.
The recipe of the dish is as simple as it sounds. All it needs is stock, a pack of rice cake, and some garnish like laver, eggs, and spring onions to put on the top. Though the dish is available all year round in restaurants, especially in beef barbeques, nothing can be more special than a bowl of rice cake soup that you made yourself because you get to grow one year older on your own initiative!
Cho Namhee currently studies communication at Chonnam National University.