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[Korean Food Culture Series - Part 8] Rites of Passage and Ceremonial Foods

A rite of passage is a term from folklore that refers to various ceremonies and rituals big and small that a person goes through in his or her life from the time he or she is born.

For these occasions, special ritual foods are prepared. The forms of rites vary across countries, races, cultural styles, and periods. Some customs Korean ancestors have preserved continue to be practiced today. For instance, every home in Korea prepares seaweed soup and a bowl of plain rice on birthdays. Guests at a wedding ceremony are served noodles in celebration of the occasion.

■ Korean Food Culture Series : The articles are presented in the following order.

1) Overview of Korean Food
2) Seasonings and Style of Korean Food
3) Special Food for Seasonal Occasions
4) Royal Cuisine- royal meal and royal table setting for celebratory occasions
5) Royal Cuisine Who made royal cuisines?
6) Kimchi, the fundamental Korean food
7) Local Foods
8) Rites of Passage and Ceremonial Foods

In Asian culture, there are certain ceremonies, both happy and sad, that mark major occasions in one's life and are considered particularly important. Examples of celebratory occasions include birth , coming-of-age, and wedding ceremonies. Sorrowful occasions are funerals and memorial services, held by one's descendents. Every ritual is defined by distinctive protocol and special foods are prepared to signify well-wishes, fortune, respect, and politeness.

1. Birth and Samchil day

The 21st day after a baby's birth is called samchil day. This is probably because the number seven (chil in Korean) was considered lucky. On this day, family and friends visit to celebrate the birth of a newborn and comfort the mother after giving labor. Miyeok-guk (seaweed soup with beef broth) is served to the mother.

2. Baekil

Baekil is an occasion marking the 100th day after a baby is born. One hundred is a number symbolic of completeness and maturity; therefore, baekil is an occasion for congratulating a baby on completing this phase and wishing him or her continued growth and good health for the future.

At a baekil celebration, a table is set with a bowl of plain rice, miyeok-guk and green vegetables. Steamed white rice cake, glutinous millet dumplings rolled in red bean powder and songpyeon (half-moon shaped rice cake) in five different colors are also prepared. On this day, congratulatory foods are shared with others.

In particular, it was believed that rice cakes prepared for baekil should be shared with one hundred families in order for the baby to be blessed with good health and longevity. The families who received rice cakes would in turn give a bundle of white cotton thread or rice instead of returning the dish empty. White cotton thread and rice signify longevity and wealth.

3. Baby's First Birthday

On a baby's first birthday, people pray for his or her longevity, fortune, and success. A new outfit is made for the baby, and plain rice and miyeok-guk are served in bowls newly prepared for the baby. Steamed white rice cake and millet dumplings are an essential part of the celebration. Green vegetables and fruit are also served.The fruit is selected to create a colorful arrangement.

A variety of foods items are placed on a table to allow the baby to reach for the item of his or her preference in a unique ceremony called doljabi. The baby's destiny is thought to be predicted through the item the baby chooses. For a baby boy, rice, a bundle of white thread, a book, paper, and bow and arrow are placed on the table. For a baby girl, a pair of scissors, needles and a ruler are laid out instead of a bow and arrow.

4. Wedding ceremony

The wedding ceremony is one of the most important events in one's life, marking the union of a man and a woman as husband and wife. According to tradition, the bridegroom's family sends a written marriage oath and a box containing chaedan (wedding presents) to the family of the bride before the wedding. This box is called ham.

Once the ham arrives at the bride's house, it is placed atop a rice-cake steamer in which bongchae-tteok (steamed glutinous rice cake sprinkled with red bean powder) are prepared. At the center of the top layer, seven jujubes are placed in a radiant shape. Bongchae-tteok is prepared to wish the couple a relationship that is as steadfast and tenacious as the glutinous rice that it is made from. The rice cake is shaped in two layers to symbolize a couple. The red beans are to ward off misfortune whereas the seven jujubes represent seven sons to wish the couple many sons and prosperity.

A wedding ceremony is performed at the bride's house involving a ritual performed by the bride and bridegroom. Guests at the reception are served noodles. On the following day, the bride and bridegroom go the bridegroom's house and the bride formally greets his parents and other senior members of the family for the first time in a ritual called pyebaek. There are slight variations across regions, but jujubes, chestnuts, beef jerky, and alcoholic beverages are usually served. Although the traditional wedding ceremony is not performed today, pyebaek is still practiced.

5. The sixtieth birthday

The sixtieth birthday is referred to as hoegap, and the children normally hold a banquet for their parents to celebrate the occasion. Hoegap, or anniversary, means a return to the year one was born. The occasion is also called hwangap or hwagap, as the parts of the character hwa (華) add up to 61 (In Korea, age is counted as years from the start of birth and not full years elapsed since birth, so 60 is counted as 61.).

A sumptuous table of food is prepared for the sixtieth birthday banquet. Because high piles of foods are placed on the table, it is called gobaesang (a table of high piles) or mangsang (a table to gaze at). A similarly piled table is also set for wedding ceremonies and the seventieth birthday. This is the most extravagant of Korean table-settings. Fresh fruit, pan-fried fish, dried beef or fish, rice cakes, traditional Korean baked goods and many other foods are piled in 30-60 centimeter-tall round stacks, which are then placed in 2-3 colorful rows.

6. Memorial services

Memorial services are rituals held by descendants in memory of the deceased. Koreans hold rituals on the anniversary of an ancestor's death, Seollal (Lunar New Year's Day), and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) to express gratitude for their blessings and to pay their respects. The foods prepared for these rituals are not extravagant.

On Seollal, tteok-guk (sliced rice cake soup) is prepared, and on Chuseok, taro soup and songpyeon are served. The assortment of dishes and their arrangements vary from family to family and region. Common offerings include alcoholic beverages, fruit (both fresh and dried), dried beef, and fish. Again, rice cakes are a standard food which are prepared with mung bean powder or husked red bean powder sprinkled on top.

Date 07/30/2008

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