Wednesday, February 8, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: The First Full Moon Festival (2)

Daeboreum (대보름) and its Superstitions and Customs 


Korean national holidays generally steep in “positive” superstitions and folk beliefs – mostly with the dos instead of the don’ts. On the contrary, Jeongweol Daeboreum, “the Great 15th of the First Month of the Lunar Calendar,” is the holiday that uniquely stands out with the “negative” superstitions and folk beliefs.  In ancient Korea, agriculture was the sole means of living.  After the harvest but before planting is called Nonghangi (농한기, “the agricultural off-season") and Jeongweol Daeboreum signals the end of the off-season is drawing near.  The higher hopes and wishes the ancient Korean farmers harbored for New Year’s good harvests and abundance, the more afraid they were to jinx them.  There were so many things that were taboo to do in hopes of preventing accidents or mishaps and having good harvests during the farming season.  Some of the Jeongweol Daeboreum taboos were as follows:

Don’t eat Gimchi (Kimchi) on Jeongweol Daeboreum.  Otherwise, you will have a skin disease spread all over the body, your teeth will be damaged, your face will be covered with melasma or dark skin discoloration, or you will get stung by bees; or weeds or grass will occupy your rice paddies and other fields.

Don’t drink cold water on Jeongweol Daeboreum.  Otherwise, you will suffer from heatstroke during summer; it will rain every time you are paid to work; or the levee of your rice paddy will break down.

Don’t mix and eat Ogokbap (오곡밥, “five grain cooked rice”)  and Namul (나물, “cooked herbs and vegetables”) as Bibimbap on Jeongweol Daeboreum.  Otherwise, the rice and other grains in your paddies and fields will be destroyed and weeds or grass occupy the place and you will become so overwhelmed by too much work that you will need to do.

Don’t use a spoon but just chopsticks when you eat on Jeongweol Daeboreum.  Otherwise, whenever you work on  a team, you will be assigned with the toughest jobs or jobs beyond your ability. 

Don’t use a knife for cooking on Jeongweol Daeboreum.  Otherwise, your paddies and fields will be infested with vermin, and the crop will be diseased and deformed.  So have all the ingredients prepared and ready to go one day ahead of Jeongweol Daeboreum.


Ancient Korean farmers called Jeongweol, the first month of the lunar calendar, Nodalgi (노달기), during which they prepared for planting season in the spring while taking a break from farming.  They spent time weaving Gamani (가마니, “grain bags made of straw”) and Saeggijul (새끼줄, “straw ropes”), making a pile of cattle and human manures to produce good quality composting, and making and repairing old-fashioned farm equipment. But that’s not all they did during that time.  In order to make a fresh start bringing in the New Year in hopes of a healthy, abundant life, they performed various kinds of sacred rituals, practiced divination, and played various kinds of superstitious pastimes.

(Left to right) Gamaniteul (Straw Bag Loom) 
and a Woven Gamani Almost Finished

See how Saeggijul, “a straw rope,” is woven
(Starting at 0:33)

Nine Loads of Ddaelggam, Yakssik, Ogokbap, and Nine Kinds of Namul
(Nine Loads of Firewood, Sweet Rice with Nuts, Five Grain Cooked Rice, 
and Cooked Herbs and Vegetables)

Ancient Koreans consumed nine loads of firewood to cook Daeboreum dishes, had nine bowls of Ogokbap starting from Daeboreum Eve until the end of Daeboreum Day, and had nine kinds of Namul – any dried and/or fresh herbs and vegetables.  In the word Ogokbap, o means “five,” gok “grains,” and bap “cooked rice.”  As its name speaks for itself, Ogokbap (오곡밥) or “five grain rice” is made basically with five grains - Chapssal (glutinous or sweet rice), Chalsusu (glutinous Korean sorghum), Pat (red bean), Chajo (glutinous Korean millet), and Bamkong (Scarlet runner bean).  You can add additional ingredients such as Mepssal (white short rice), chestnuts, Daechu (Korean jujube), or assorted beans.  (Click here for the recipe.)

It was a tradition that the ancient Korean farmers shared Ogokbap with their neighbors – they tried to eat at least three bowls out of nine at different neighbors’ on Daeboreum Day since they believed sharing the food with at least 3 families would bring them luck all year round.  It was also believed that they would not suffer from heatstroke during summer if they had nine kinds of Namul on Daeboreum.  The belief is strongly grounded in the premises as the Namul dishes provide enough nutrients that we are prone to be deficient of during winter.

After the farmers had another bowl of Ogokbap on Daeboreum Morning, then there came the cattle’s turn to taste Ogokbap and Namul put in Ki (, “a winnowing fan”).  It was one of all those divination practices on Daeboreum Day; the farmers believed that they would have a great harvest only if the animals ate the rice first, but it would be to the contrary if they ate the vegetables first.

There is another dish made mainly of glutinous rice called Yaksik (약식) or Yakbap (약밥) which translates to “remedial food” or “remedial rice” – the word yak means “medicine, remedy” and the dish was named as it includes Ggul (, “honey”) that has been universally regarded as the elixir of life.1  The dish is a dessert or treat, not an entrée, and consists of glutinous rice, honey, chestnuts, pine nuts, Korean jujubes, soy sauce, and sesame oil.   Since such ingredients were almost impossible for the ancient commoners to get, the dish was exclusively for the royals, nobles, and haves. 

According to Korean folklore recorded in Samguk Yusa (삼국유사, 三國遺事), or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, 57 BC~668), Yaksik was invented by Sojiwang (소지왕, King Soji (479~500)) of the Silla Dynasty as a tribute to a crow that had saved his life.  King Soji, on the First Full Moon Day of the tenth year of his reign, was having an outing at Cheoncheonjeong (천천정, 千泉亭) or the “Pavilion of a Thousand Streams,” and there, a crow and a mouse were playing with each other.  The mouse unanticipatedly started speaking in human language and ordered the king to follow the crow.  Out of curiosity, King Soji had his servant follow after the crow.  It led him to a pond and there, an old man rose from it.  The old man handed to him an envelope containing a letter on the outside of which it was written, “If you open this envelope and read a letter in it, two people shall die; if not, only one person shall die.”

King Soji thought it would be better for him to have one man die than two; but still confused, he hurried back to the palace.  Then, he summoned all his advisors to have them interpret the revelation and was given the answer:  The one person referred to the king himself and the two people some others.  King Soji hurriedly opened the envelope and read the letter, saying, “Shoot an arrow into the harp case right away.” So he did what he had been told and then saw a stream of blood leak out of the case. When the king had the case open, there were his queen and a Buddhist monk, lying dead in each other’s arms.  It turned out the queen had had an affair with the monk.  For a long time, the queen and the monk had harbored plans to kill the king and that very night, they had been hiding in the harp case waiting for an opportunity for an easy kill. 

To pay tribute to the crow, King Soji declared that day, the 15th of Jeongweol or the first Full Moon Day of the year, to be Ogiil (오기일, 烏忌日) that translates to “Crow Memorial Day.” As homage to the crow’s color, the king invented a black glutinous rice recipe.   As time passed by, such additional ingredients as honey, assorted nuts and Korean jujubes were gradually plused to the dish.  Back then in ancient times, however, the commoners couldn’t afford to consume it so they invented a more affordable recipe instead; it was Ogokbap that included the more ordinary and common five grains - glutinous or sweet rice, glutinous Korean sorghum, red bean, glutinous Korean millet, and beans. 

This tradition of eating Yaksik has been passed down, for ages, until today, and the food has become one of the signature Daeboreum dishes.  Domun Daejak (1611) or (Pretending to) Chew Facing the Entrance to the Butcher’s,2 recorded that the Chinese loved Yaksik so much that they copied the food and called it Goryeobap (고려밥, “Goryeo rice”), from which we can assume that the food was first introduced to China during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392).

Injeolmi (인절미) is also a Daeboreum dessert or treat made of glutinous or sweet rice; the food is one of the very common varieties of Ddeok (, "Rice cakes") made by steaming the glutinous or sweet rice, kneading it until it forms a sticky and smooth dough, cutting it into rectangular cubes, and covering them with cooked soybean powder. As you may know by now, Daeboreum grain dishes mainly use glutinous or sweet rice that is known to keep your body (inside and out) warm and strengthen your liver and stomach.

1.  The word yak literally means “medicine, remedy” but it is used also to refer to a thing that is considered precious and beneficial.  For example, when Ggul (, “honey”) is used in wine, it is called Yakju (약주, 藥酒); when used in Korean-style cookies, it is called Yakgwa (약과, 藥果). 

2. Twenty six volumes of Domun Daejak (도문대작, 屠門大爵) were written by Heo Gyun (허균) in 1611 when he was banished from Hanyang (한양, “Today’s Seoul”) to the Jeollabukdo Province, in the southwest of South Korea.  There Heo was provided with very poor, meager meals all the time, which led him to write about all the delicious, fancy foods he had had before in Hanyang. The phrase domun refers to the “entrance doors to the butcher's” and daejak means “masticate,” and combined, the title means “I am pretending to chew (the meat that is out of my reach now) facing the direction of Hanyang where my favorite butcher’s is.”

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