During Chuseok (추석), Korea’s autumn harvest festival, the treat of the season is songpyeon (송편). Made of rice flour—and an assortment of fillings such as red bean paste, soybean paste, chestnut paste, or a mixture of sesame seeds, honey, and sugar—they’re chewy, sweet, and made to be shared. Traditionally, families made songpyeon to give to relatives and close neighbors as a sign of respect, appreciation, and love.
What is songpyeon?
Songpyeon is made by kneading rice flour with hot water. Pieces of dough are stuffed with sweet fillings, then they’re shaped into bite-sized treats. Traditional flavors include rice for white songpyeon, and mugwort for a flecked, deep green; our recipe uses freeze-dried strawberries for pink songpyeon, and matcha for green.
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Songpyeon symbolizes the moon: Traditionally the dough would look like a full moon when it’s flat and rounded in your hand, ready for filling, and a half moon once folded shut and shaped. This is significant because songpyeon was often used in ancestral celebrations (along with other foods) that involved prayer to and acknowledgment of the moon, showing appreciation for the year’s harvest and expressing hope to end the year on a prosperous note. There’s even an old wives’ tale saying if a woman makes a pretty songpyeon, she will meet a good-looking spouse or give birth to a beautiful baby. Today, songpyeon is available in many designs such as seashells, peaches, persimmons, leaves, pumpkins, and these apple-shaped ones filled with brown sugar, honey, and sesame seeds.
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Songpyeon was historically steamed over a bed of pine needles to infuse the rice cakes with the invigorating smell and health benefits of pine trees, which is how it gets its name. Song (송) is based on the Korean word for pine tree; sonamu (소나무) and pyeon (편) carries the meaning of side dish.
Tips to make beautiful songpyeon:
For the least hassle and best outcome, keep these pointers in mind as you shape and serve your songpyeon.
It’s all about texture.
Make sure your dough is not too dry nor too moist. When kneading, you don’t want them to break apart or be crumbly, so as you shape your songpyeon, the dough should be firm. If it feels too dry, don’t pour in water—instead, wet your hands and incorporate slowly into the dough by kneading.
Use a light touch when you are shaping and rolling the songpyeon, as the fillings can burst out. It’s a game of patience, so keep your hands loose and relaxed as you round them out.
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Don’t skip the oil.
As a last step, songpyeon are brushed with a bit of sesame oil (or vegetable oil in many modern kitchens). This keeps them soft, pliable, and from drying out too quickly.
Enjoy them immediately.
The longer songpyeon are exposed to air, the more they’ll dry out, losing their signature stretchy chew. For the best flavor and texture, eat songpyeon as soon as they’re steamed. But that’s easy.