You might be able to readily identify what the third Thursday of November is, but what about the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar?
To Koreans, this time is called Chuseok, also known as Hangawi. And as big as Thanksgiving is in the U.S., Chuseok is huge in Korea. It's one of the country's most significant holidays of the year, and could even be called Korean Thanksgiving.
Chuseok translates to "autumn eve" and is, at its core, a harvest moon festival nodding back to Korea's traditional agrarian roots. It usually falls sometime in late September to early October (this year it's Sept. 30 to Oct. 2). Chuseok's exact dates are somewhat of a moving target year to year, but a couple of things remain constant: the traditional foods that make their way onto every family table, and the infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic that plagues the small country's major roads in the lead-up to the long holiday, as people make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to honor familial ancestors.
Like any good holiday, Chuseok's three-day period is one marked by lots of reflective family time, raucous games, and of course, good, glorious food. I have early memories of just being able to peer over the kitchen table, watching my mother thread beef, scallion, and imitation crab pieces onto short skewers to make colorful sanjeok jeon (check out a before/after here), among other savory jeon pancakes (incidentally, Koreans are masters of pan-fried foods!).
Historically, the women of the family would get together to prepare labor-intensive dishes for a charye, or ancestral memorial, ceremony. In addition to the above-mentioned jeon, songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes filled with sesame seeds, red beans, brown sugar, chestnuts, or pine nuts) are the quintessential Chuseok food, with other highlighted dishes including freshly harvested rice; fruit like Asian pear, apples, and jujubes; and rice liquor. There are, of course, traditional ways to set up this elaborate table, but rituals and exactitude vary by region and, at the end of the day, how your own family prefers to celebrate.
With more Koreans living abroad, far from their extended clans, the diaspora has naturally found ways to reflect on old traditions while creating their own. I asked a few notable Koreans and Korean-Americans working in the food industry here in the U.S. about what Chuseok means to them:
Simon Kim, Owner, Cote
Growing up in Korea, I spent this holiday with extended family and honored our ancestors by visiting their resting places. Now in the United States, I find it is much more nuclear family–oriented. Since the Korean population here is much smaller, this holiday tends towards immediate family gatherings. Still, these small celebrations remain important as a celebration of heritage. Because I spend so much time in the restaurant at Cote, this is a valuable holiday that allows me to take a day and spend it with my wife, Nayun, and my daughter, Dani. I like to celebrate by cooking traditional Korean food for my family, especially savory pancakes known as jeon.