Words by Ciara N Hickey, Executive Chef of the W Seoul Walkerhill
Forget fruitcake Korea’s end-of-the-year treat is
a porridge made of red beans and rice.
It seems that wherever I work, there are a few local dishes that make their way into my comfort food zone. You know the ones: they’re usually part of the daily routine or an indispensable part of a holiday or celebration. In my case, such dishes have included West Indian rum cake at Christmas and Turkish breakfast on weekends. Here in Seoul, my comfort foods are spicy udon on Saturdays, Insadong hotteok on cold days, and finally patjuk.
I first came across patjuk at work, as we like to serve this at our year-end employee parties, and let me just saythis stuff is popular. Like a great deal of dishes here, it isn’t the most pleasing on the eye, but it more than makes up for it in taste. One of the main reasons I enjoy patjuk is its remarkable likeness to the breakfast oatmeal I used to have every day before school. Even though they couldn’t look any more different, in taste they seem like long-lost cousins.
So where did patjuk come from? Traditionally, this porridge dish of red beans (pat 팥), sticky rice and mini dumplings made with rice powder (sae-al-sim 새알심) was traditionally served on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice (dongji 동지). It’s quite simple to make: red beans (referred to as azuki beans in Japan) are cooked slowly with sticky rice until they form a porridge. This is then served with the rice balls and maybe even some honey if you’re going for a really posh version.
Eating patjuk is in part a spiritual preparation for the upcoming New Year, to ward off illness and bad luck and celebrate the longer hours of daylight to come. The porridge was used to mark the door of the house, since the color red was viewed as a charm that could repel mischievous spirits. Bowls of patjuk were then offered up to the ancestors and shared with neighbors. After all this tiring work, the porridge itself was finally eaten as the beans contain many nutritional and health benefits.
Traditions fade, and today belief in the patjuk’s ghost-busting power is not as strong as it once was. But the dish is still as delicious as ever, and the seasonal red and white of a good bowl of patjuk will fit right in with your year-end festivities.
The Donji FAQ
In the past, patjuk was eaten on Dongji, or the Winter Solstice. Most readers probably know what the Winter Solstice is, but fewer are familiar with the ancient Korean lunisolar calendar of which Donji is a part. This was one of the so-called twenty-four solar terms or seasonal markers which acted as an agricultural guidelines for farmers. As Dongji is the longest night of the year, Koreans believed that dead souls took advantage of the darkness to hunt people down. The tradition of eating patjuk on Dongji arose as a way to scare away these ghosts with the red porridge.
Netizen Picks Bonjuk 본죽
No matter where you live in Korea, you’re very likely to find a Bonjuk branch close by. Juk junkies come here to slurp on everything from mushroom to octopus and kimchi. Of course, dongji patjuk (W7,000) is on the menu, too.
bonjuk.co.kr 1644-6288 The Second Best Restaurant in Seoul
It may not be the best restaurant in the city, but this porridge shop has a claim to some of the tastiest patjuk around (W5,500). The sweet old lady who runs the shop adds gingko nuts, chestnuts, and big globs of rice cake into the mix along with an ample sprinkling of cinnamon on top.
Seoul, Jongno-gu, Samcheongdong 28-21
You may need a car to get to this restaurant located by the Bukhan River in Yangpyeong, east of Seoul. Start with the patjuk (W8,000) and move on to seafood pajeon (W12,000) and spicy kalguksu (W10,000) if you’re still hungry.
Seojong-myeon, Munho-ri 666-6