If all you had to do was eat something delicious on a particular day of the year to ward off evil spirits for the following year, would you? On the winter solstice, the day with the shortest day and the longest night of the year, Koreans eat patjuk (팥죽), a red bean porridge, which is specifically made for this purpose.
Winter solstice is called dongji (동지), and with the longest hours of darkness, it is a day where yin overpowers the yang, making it the perfect environment for ghosts and evil spirits to roam. To counter and even out the yin and find a sense of equilibrium, yang has to be introduced in abundance and patjuk was considered a simple solution: the red of the beans symbolize the sun, fire, blood, strength, and life – a burst of yang. Not only was patjuk eaten, it was also spilled over front gates and doors, the guardian tree at the village entrance; while bowls of patjuk were put out in various places around the house to serve the spirits. One paid respect to ancestors in traditional rites, like those at Chuseok or Seollal. Chasing away all bad ill, dongji was observed as a day to forget old grievances and start anew, a day to embrace all the good fortune that was to come in the New Year.
Patjuk is made from pat (팥), red beans. Red beans are soaked and made into a porridge by adding glutinous rice. The rice is also used to make small sticky rice balls called saealshim (새알심, birds’ eggs) which are added to give additional texture. As pat is considered a yin food and the saealshim a yang, the balance between the two is also considered beneficial healthwise. Doctors of traditional medicine point out that patjuk wasn’t eaten only for spiritual reasons. Pat is a yang; it stimulates your inner organs and rids your body of toxic waste – functions much needed in the winter months - and as dongji is the epitome of winter, well, it would make complete sense to fill your body up with a bowl of hot patjuk.
There are the lucky who get homemade patjuk, but for the less fortunate, there are other options: juk specialty restaurants, traditional Korean restaurants, tteok stores, department stores and even fast food chains have their version of patjuk on the menu as the solstice nears. With the exception of fine dining restaurants, most are available for takeout. Each restaurant has its own special recipe but most will offer you either the unseasoned type or the sweet type called dan patjuk (단팥죽). Some people like to add salt to the unseasoned patjuk when not opting for the sweet, but always taste a spoonful before adding anything – sometimes the patjuk is fine just the way it is. (I personally like it unseasoned, because the patjuk already has a savoury taste from the beans.)
Patjuk may be eaten with a series of banchan (반찬, side dishes) but it’s generally accompanied with a variation of mulkimchi (물김치, watery kimchi) / dongchimi (동치미). Regular cabbage kimchi, jeotgal (젓갈), and other banchan are added according to the cook and diners’ taste. Some people argue that patjuk doesn’t need any banchan at all – this is most true for the sweet kind.
With the exception of Mom’s homemade patjuk, I personally find the best patjuk is found in the food stalls at Korea’s traditional markets. The juk stalls at Gwangjang Market (광장시장) in Seoul have been around for nearly 40 years and despite the non-ideal dining circumstances, the rich, smooth taste of the juk makes you deliberately going back for more. (The benches are warm in the winter, so you have a warm bottom as well as a warm belly while you eat!) Patjuk, hobakjuk (호박죽, sweet pumpkin juk), and nokdujuk (녹두죽, mung bean juk) are the staple varieties offered, so after a bowl of patjuk you can eat a bowl of hobakjuk as dessert.
Because dongji is a day for warding off the bad in order to welcome in the good, it is a day for sharing. Many organizations, companies, and communities will come together to make patjuk to share with the less fortunate. Dongji falls on December 22nd this year. As you slurp down the hot patjuk with your family, friends, or colleagues, take some time to wish good fortune for everyone. Happy dongji, happy patjuk day!