It has always been my favourite time of the year.
Hangawi, also known as Chuseok (추석), falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, an important national holiday in Korea. To second-generation Korean-Canadians, it is simply referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving”. This year, Hangawi runs from October 3rd-5th, when the moon comes into full bloom.
As a child, I remember extended family members gathering at my grandparents farm, near Suwon, bearing gifts, platters of half-moon rice cakes (송편), and a year’s worth of stories. It was a festive time, with plenty of activities to keep the children busy, but also a time when the spirit of our ancestors were honoured in elaborate ceremonies, with everyone donning elaborately vibrant hanboks (한복).
Immigration to Canada, with its familiar and urgent contingencies, brought an abrupt halt to all that. Assimilation meant the end to those sweet and savoury rice cakes, and the lunar calendar, in favour of a curiously oversized fowl with its legs poking the air, and precisely at dinnertime every second Monday of every October. For the first five years in the new country, rubbery turkey meat and globs of tepid gravy from a can is what awaited us at our cousin’s house. Each year we exercised our imaginations to avoid attending that dreaded meal.
But times change. With practice, we learned how to keep the turkey moist, but by then some of us kept turning our heads back. The Prodigal Son was homesick.
The fifth annual Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017: Hangawi was held within walking distance of Toronto’s original Koreatown, where so many of the first wave of Korean immigrants to our country sought refuge and some semblance of collective remembering. Artscape Wychwood Barns, a multi-faceted community hub, is, like the event itself, a unique merging of the old with the new. Hosted by the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Toronto, it was a lavish celebration of both traditional Korean cuisine (한식) and Korean-inspired contemporary dishes – a meeting of the landed-first and born-second generation Koreans.
Music, with one eye looking back and the other looking forward, accompanied the festivities. From a traditional drum disruption and the formal 12-stringed gayageum (가야금), to a Canadian version of K-pop, vaguely nostalgic sounds filled the halls.
But it was the main course that the 350+ guests came for: Korean food. And lots of it. Staples including bibimbap (비빔밥) and kimchi (김치) and japchae (잡채: sweet potato starch noodles) were offered in abundance by the three major Korean supermarket chains in the GTA (P.A.T, Galleria, HMart), as well as a spectacular buffet of some of Korea’s finest traditional dishes by Seoul House Restaurant.
Over the years, there has been a welcome increase in the numbers of non-Korean guests attending the annual event. The role of Korean cuisine has finally caught up to the other “soft technology” exports of South Korea, all of which came in the form of Hallyu (Korean Wave), particularly from the K-Pop music, TV drama, and movies sector.
I gave a talk about Hangawi and demonstrated the preparation of seasonal apple-pear kimchi, sharing with the audience the true spirit of Korean cuisine: fermentation. Without this labour-intensive method of food preservation, it is virtually impossible to imagine what a Korean dining table would look like. Fermentation has become the latest go-to word in health and wellness circles, but it has served a unique function and purpose in Korean cuisine for thousands of years. Yes, it is good for your digestive tract. Yes, capsaicin, the active ingredient in the most recognized of Korean seasonings – the red chile pepper – is an effective remedy for pain, not to speak of obesity; but it’s sole purpose has always been to produce nutrient-rich food during the long Korean winters, when fresh ingredients were scarce – mothers over hundreds of generations have understood this. And this idea has moved many of us to pass these traditions along while also looking for methods and ingredients in our backyards to harmonize with it.
I invited two talented second-generation chefs to join me at the event, both of whom have been pushing the envelope on Korean-Canadian cuisine over the past few years. Jane Jhung of Lee Nam Jang Restaurant, reimagined kimchi pancakes (전) with good ole fashion Canadian bacon; and Jongwan Kim of The Korean Kitchen, took a torch to his bulgogi (불고기) and gave it a classic French baguette twist to it. Both were huge hits and I am very proud of their continued efforts to move forward while gently tugging along our shared culinary history.
This was a memorable night, with all those in attendance intent on celebrating one of our significant moments. It did much to positively illuminate Korean culture, our people, and its food. Time to put down the daily papers, turn away from the internet news sites. Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017 revealed to those whose eyes may be clouded by current affairs, what the true spirit of being Korean looks like.
Honourable Consul General Kang and Consul Jeon, the Cultural attache, along with his assistant, Grace Ki, and their team of staff and volunteers, should be commended for creating an evening like no other in our city, our country. Because of this night, and thanks to them, we are all proud to be Koreans today.
As for me, it’s a kind of homecoming, a return to my culinary and spiritual roots. Sure, if you wish…like Odysseus looking toward Ithaca. And like those Greeks of old, we Koreans speak our own variation of the proverb: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.”
This extraordinary event has been a healing journey for many, especially for me.