There are a lot of traditions associated with the coming of the new year, whether it’s the Western New Year that we ring in on January 1, the Chinese New Year which lands some time in late January or early February, or even Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, in September or October. I’m American, and ring in the new year at midnight on December 31 with lots of champagne, hugs and kisses all around, and pretty much all kinds of other decadent debauchery.
But I’m also Korean, so my family adheres to some of the Korean traditions associated with the new year. When I was little, my sisters and I would very begrudgingly don our hahn-boks, traditional Korean dresses, and do seh-beh. I hated it. The dresses were stiff and itchy and very uncomfortable. After a while, they got too small, but a hahn-bok isn’t something you can pick up in the next size up at Macy’s. They are always custom-made in Korea, and Mom brought them back only when she went to visit Korea.
My parents sat on the couch, and each of us in turn would pay our respects by kneeling down and taking a deep bow – so deep, our foreheads touched the floor at my parents’ feet. "Seh-hae-bohk mah-nee bah-duh-sae-yuh” is the wish for prosperity and good fortune. America puts very little emphasis on ceremony and tradition, so I thought all of this was ridiculous.
Of course, I tolerated it, since part of the tradition is exchanging gifts, and as a child, I received seh-beh dohn – money. After we bowed, my mom pulled a little roll of cash out of her sleeve and handed it to each of us. I would just snatch it from her, run to my room to change out of the horrible hahm-bohk and stash my cash away. Greedy spoiled little brat. Then we’d eat the traditional Korean new year food, dduk-gook, a brothy soup (gook) with small rice cakes (dduk).
Why dduk-gook is important for the new year, not even my mom knows. I just know that we’ve always eaten it. With almost everything available pre-marinated, pre-made, or pre-cooked at the Korean market, my mother doesn’t have to cook anything these days. And though dduk gook isn’t as complicated as other Korean dishes, she always spends time making the dduk gook from scratch. It has a rich chicken broth base that thickens slightly with the addition of the rice cakes. These aren’t what we know as styrofoam Quaker rice cakes for dieters. They are more like dumplings or pasta, made from rice flour, and are equivalent to Japanese mochi. To make it into a meal, Mom adds gogi mahn-doo (beef wontons), a swirl of beaten eggs, and green onions for color. Of course, she makes mine special for me – vegetable wontons and egg whites only.
This year, I missed the traditional seh-beh on Day 1. I was off whirling around downtown LA with a 72 hour hazy buzz. But my Mom still called me, asked me to be careful, not to drink too much, and said that even if I’d be a day late, my dduk gook was waiting for me. And my seh-beh dohn, too. Honestly, the seh-beh dohn is really a tradition for children, but I guess to Mom, I’m always a child. I'm still a little hungover, and maybe that's why we serve dduk gook on New Year's Day - to cure a wicked hangover.
As much as I hated it back then, I so appreciate my parents’ teaching me as much as they could about my heritage, despite all my reluctant rebellion. We still do seh-beh now, but we don’t have to dress up. And as much as I still feel a little silly with my forehead pressed to the floor, I know how much it means to my parents that I wish them a prosperous new year in Korean. It means a lot to me, too.
Dduk Mahn-doo Gook Recipe (Rice Cake and Dumpling Soup)
1 package dduk (oval slices)
8 c. rich chicken broth
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2-3 T soy sauce (basically, to taste)
2-3 scallions (green parts only) cut into 2" long pieces
mahn-doo enough for all the people who are eating (fresh or frozen)
salt and pepper to taste
sesame oil to taste
toasted gim (seaweed, or nori), julienned/crumbled for garnish
Soak dduk in cold water for at least 20 minutes, or until soft.
In large pot, heat chicken broth, then add garlic (more if you prefer), soy sauce, scallions, and salt/pepper to taste, and let simmer for about 10 minutes (to flavor the broth).
Add mahn-doo to broth to cook, then add dduk. Allow to simmer until dduk is soft.
Lightly beat eggs, then stir slowly into simmering soup.
To serve, ladle into large bowls, drizzle with sesame oil, and sprinkle with sesame seeds and gim, if you'd like.
**Note: Once it is cooked, dduk does not keep well. Add only enough dduk to the soup that you know you will eat immediately. You can always add more later.