The Lunar New Year has finally started and the moon has started its new cycle as well, with the first full moon of the New Year falling fifteen days after Seollal (설날, Lunar New Year’s Day.) This day in Korea is celebrated as Jeongwol Daeboreum (정월 대보름), another traditional day which celebrates the full moon like Chuseok (추석) in the fall.
The full moon has deep meaning in traditional Korean culture. The moon is the yin to the sun’s yang, the “womanly” nature which signifies bounty and abundance, water to meet with the earth to give plenty. In an agricultural based society, the importance cannot be emphasized enough.
The farm animals are fed and taken care of, food is set out for the crows, ceremonial rituals are carried out for the Goddess in the Moon to wish for a bountiful harvest, good fortune, and it was also celebrated with many entertaining games and amusement: greeting the rising moon with lighted torches in hand, making “moon house” bonfires and making wishes, jumping on the traditional see-saw, tug-of-war, flying kites, and much more.
One of the more interesting customs is called “selling heat” (더위팔기). It requires being the first to tell someone “Buy my heat”, meaning that person is now the owner of your heat. The “heat” here specifically indicates the sweltering summer heat and whoever succeeds in selling their heat would not suffer in the summer. An amusing superstition that still lasts to this day, although it is said mostly to playfully annoy others more than anything else.
Then there’s the food. A celebration would be nothing without food. Many foods and dishes consumed on Jeongwol Daeboreum are health-conscious. Rice of five mixed grains (오곡밥) is eaten instead of the standard bowl of white rice as is yakbap (약밥), literally “medicine rice”, a sticky sweet rice mixed with dates, chestnuts, pine nuts, and honey. Since spring is lurking around the corner, namul (나물), of course, is also eaten. Not necessarily healthy, gwibalgisul (귀밝이술) is a traditional liquor drunk before breakfast, “to make your hearing better” as its name indicates.
But the star of Jeongwol Daeboreum food is definitely bureom (부럼), which basically means nuts. The word ‘bureom’ is said to have a double meaning: nuts, its’ original meaning, and a shortened version for ‘busureom’ (부스럼), a word which means “boil” or “sore”, as in the skin infection. Eating bureom is to prevent yourself from getting such an illness for the following year.
It’s a tradition much like the patjuk (팥죽, red bean porridge0 eaten on the winter solstice); eating certain foods for good health and protection against misfortune.
But nuts? Why nuts? The main reason for this custom is because of the nuts’ hard shells. Cracking the nuts open with your teeth signify good health; after all, your teeth have to be in good shape in order to crack those shells and chew the nuts properly. Walnuts, pine nuts, raw chestnuts were traditionally eaten the most, while peanuts became more popular later on.
The origin of the bureom tradition is unclear but old manuscripts from the Joseon Dynasty describe this custom as being widespread in the country, from the royal court to the peasantry.
Walnuts in Korea are first mentioned in documents dating back to the 14th century but scholars state that they were introduced much earlier. High in protein, vitamins, and calcium, they are popular as anju (안주, side dish accompanying liquor), included in sweets and traditional dishes such as sinseollo (신선로, hot pot).
Considering the abundance of pine trees in Korea, it shouldn’t be surprising that pine nuts essential in Korean food. They have been consumed since pre-historic times and there are so many dishes which are made from pine nuts or include pine nut that I’m rather sure a whole cookbook may be able to be written of them. Pine nuts are high in protein and fiber, and besides making your lungs healthy and skin shine, they are supposed to be the miracle cure for everything. (Says my mother, who made me eat tons when I was a scrawny kid.)
High in protein, fiber, and vitamins, Korean chestnuts have been around as long as pine nuts. They have a natural sweet flavor – even when raw – which intensifies after cooking or drying. It is truly an essential item in all foods related to Korean ceremonial occasions: coming of age, weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites. They are thrown into the traditional cloth held by the newlywed couple at the wedding to wish them many sons, and their shells are removed in precision to be put on the table when paying respect to one’s ancestors.
Peanuts are the latecomers, having been introduced in Korea in the late 18th century. However, they started to be cultivated much later. Whether it is for that reason, I cannot recall a traditional dish where peanuts are used as a main ingredient. Also a nut high in protein, fiber, and vitamins, they’re used in confectionery snacks or made into oil but mostly eaten in their nutty state. The bureom peanuts, though, unlike many peanuts sold on the market, come in their shells.
Bureom remains the most popular of Jeongwol Daeboreum food, simply because, well, it’s simple. You can go and pick up nuts by scoops at any traditional market or large supermarket chains, gift sets are available in specialty stores and online for those who weren’t able to give gifts for the Lunar New Year or who simply want to give again.
If you like nuts, it’s a great excuse to indulge, and if you don’t like nuts, it’s a great occasion to give them a go – for good health and luck’s sake.
Happy Jeongwol Daeboreum!
Jeongwol Daeboreum falls on February 24th, 2013.
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