Chef Ji Hye Kim explains the Korean mid-autumn harvest festival, Chuseok: 'It's Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Day of the Dead combined into one'

·6 min read
Chef Ji Hye Kim says her family's Chuseok celebration has changed over the years, but the holiday remains a culinary delight. (Photos: Ji Hye Kim, Getty Creative)
Chef Ji Hye Kim says her family's Chuseok celebration has changed over the years, but the holiday remains a culinary delight. (Photos: Ji Hye Kim, Getty Creative)

"During Chuseok,” says chef Ji Hye Kim, "Seoul basically looks like a college town — everyone leaves to visit their families and ancestral homes in Korea's smaller towns."

She would know. Kim lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she owns Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant recently named an essential Ann Arbor restaurant by Eater. She's also a James Beard Foundation "Outstanding Chef" semifinalist and was featured as one of Food and Wine's "Best New Chefs" in 2021.

At Miss Kim, Kim's food is inspired by ancient Korean cookbooks and culinary traditions, so educating and celebrating a heritage holiday like Chuseok is one of her great passions.

What is Chuseok?

Chuseok is the Korean mid-autumn harvest festival, celebrated according to the agrarian lunar calendar, which means it happens around the same time each year, but not on the same date. This year, Chuseok falls on Sept. 10., but is celebrated by some as a three-day feast. It's is a major holiday in Korea, celebrating the harvest and the bounty it brings as well as honoring ancestors and living relatives.

"It's Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Day of the Dead combined into one," says Kim. "It's the time of year when a lot of vegetables and rice are being harvested. You get close to a week off from school, you visit your ancestral home and it's also one of the only times each year that women get to visit their families."

Kim explains in Korean culture, when a woman marries a man she forsakes her own family to become a part of his. She remembers celebrating Chuseok with her mother, an excellent cook in her own right, and visiting her maternal grandparents as a highlight of the festival.

Food is the star of the Chuseok festival

Because the festival commemorates the autumn harvest, food is a major part of the holiday. Kim explains the anchor of the festival's culinary offerings is jeon, pancake fritters filled with seasonal vegetables, seafood and kimchi.

"My mother would make eight or nine types of jeon, which I've come to realize is not an easy feat," she says. "They're very work-intensive."

"They're smaller than your palm and you have to fry each one individually and flip them at the right time," Kim explains. She says as a mischievous child, she would wait for the perfect moment for the jeon to come out of the pan and swipe one to eat, so her mother was always refilling the supply of jeon filled with zucchini, thinly sliced fish, chives and other herbs.

Another vegetable-forward dish Kim remembers from Chuseok celebrations is japchae — sweet potato glass noodles stir-fried with all types of vegetables and marinated beef. An egg drop sandwich — with beef and eggs — is also traditional, as well as tender, saucy, braised short ribs called galbi-jjim.

"It takes a village to celebrate this holiday and the harvest, and it takes a whole family to make these fun foods and traditions," says Kim. She also remembers black soybean dumplings steamed with pine needles that took on the woodsy aroma of the forest floor, as well as beef and taro soup called muguk and the grilled sliced beef in a dish called nuhbiani. "It's a flatter, thicker, soy-garlic marinated pan-fried beef," says Kim of the dish, which is also known as Korean royal beef due to it being served to kings and queens in ancient Korea. "It's delicious."

Honoring ancestors, sharing a meal, building community

Kim's maternal extended family lived three hours from Seoul. During Chuseok, they drove to the village where they lived and visited a hill where her mother's ancestors were buried. "Korean graves aren't flat," she says. "You leave a round mound on top of the gravesite so you know there's a grave there."

Kim says it's not uncommon for living relatives to kneel down and hug the gravesite mound during visits to feel closer to their relative, along with cleaning the area around the gravesite to pay respect. "This is not a suburban yard," she says. "My uncles and cousins would take machetes to cut down the vegetation that had grown around the graves. The women and children would go up the side of a hill and wait for the men to be finished so we could eat together and have a huge picnic."

One of her favorite food memories revolves around a chestnut grove where her uncle would go after the Chuseok family picnic. "He went to these wild chestnut trees and brought me a ripe, fresh chestnut," she recalls. "I never forgot eating my first one."

"The chestnut is a really defensive fruit with many layers," she adds. "You first have to cut around the spiny shell with needles sticking out like a hedgehog, then peel the shiny brown outer shell and then the translucent inner shell that's like parchment paper. It wasn't a cupcake, but it was so sweet and delicious and left a huge impression on me."

Bringing Chuseok traditions across the Pacific

Kim immigrated with her family from Korea to New Jersey as a teenager, and the family brought with them the traditions and foods they enjoyed during the festival.

"Chuseok is a family holiday, but since most of the extended family of immigrants is still in the home country, churches and community centers are where the celebrations happen," she explains. This year, Kim will be celebrating the holiday at the Korean American Center in Ann Arbor, an organization associated with the University of Michigan that's mission is to build a stronger connection between intergenerational Koreans and the community.

She plans to make a couple of different jeon pancakes, nuhbiani and japchae. As for the traditional rice cakes, she'll leave that to the experts. "I'm not a masochist,” she jokes. "I'll just buy those. They do a great job and they make them fresh, or you can buy them frozen and they're just as good."

At Miss Kim, Kim places emphasis on creating traditional Korean dishes using Midwestern ingredients. One of the ingredients most used in Chuseok dishes is beef. Luckily, the Midwest produces the most and best in the country. "Beef is the preferred protein in the Midwest," she says, "and there are so many prolific vegetables local to our area that I incorporate into my dishes as well."

She likes to see what vegetables are in season and use those in traditional preparations as much as possible. "One of my favorite jeon dishes to make is using fried green tomatoes," she says. "I slice the tomatoes, remove the seeds and juices so they're nice and dry and then fry them in an egg wash with a little basil or shiso leaves (an aromatic herb with a citrusy flavor) from a local farmer who uses second-generation seeds from Korea."

"If you're celebrating the harvest, you use what's available that was just picked in your area," she says. By giving back to your community, forging ties and bonds within a family and learning about the benefit of the harvest, Koreans and Korean-Americans can enjoy the holiday in ways new and old.

"You get the best of both worlds," she says, "the comfort of centuries of tradition as well as the opportunity to make your celebration your own."

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