This year, Koreans celebrate their New Year or Seollal on 1 February, one of the most important holidays in their calendar. The festive period lasts for three days, from the eve to New Year’s Day and the day after. The celebratory feast usually includes white rice cake soup, traditional confectionery, fresh seasonal fruits as well as sweetened drinks. The following food and drink experts share more about their traditions. 

Olivia Lee, founder of SoGoodK, purveyor of premium Korean products 

Olivia Lee who was born and bred in Daejeon, Korea has fond memories of new year back home. “Growing up in a big family in Korea, our relatives would visit my family, and we would gather and perform ancestral rituals. The kids will usually perform the 세배 (sebae) as a form of respect to their elders, who in return will present them with 세뱃돈 (sebaetdon), which is similar to  Chinese red packets (ang pow). Sebae is an act of kneeling and bowing, and wishing the elders “새해 복 많이 받으세요 (SaeHae Bok Mani Badeusaeyo)”, which means “having lots of luck in the new year”. 

This year, the food consultant who’s married to chef Sebastien Lepinoy of Les Amis, will be preparing her version of tteokguk, or rice cake soup cooked in beef stock with meat and seaweed.  She will also make jeon or Korean pancake, either using meat or vegetables, mixed with flour and egg.”

Back in Korea, Olivia used to invite family and friends over for a meal on New Year’s Day.  She would cook seafood such as abalone and fish as they are “firmer and fresher during the winter season”.  Says the trained chef, “one of my specialties is galbi-jjim (braised short beef ribs). I will add fresh abalone from Wando for a special touch.”

“In Korea during the festive season, we eat traditional sweets called hangwa (deep-fried snack made of glutinous rice flour and coated with gangjung or rice puffs). It comes in many different flavours such as pumpkin, seaweed, etc. We also eat yakgwa (deep-fried honey and ginger pastry) and a variety of fruits such as dried persimmons, strawberry, apple and pear.” She adds, “For drinks, we will prepare a special sweet cinnamon dessert punch called sujeonggwa. The drink is made from dried persimmons, cinnamon, ginger and brown sugar and is often garnished with pine nuts.”

This year, the entrepreneur has been bringing in hangwa and yakgwa, handmade by a master called AhnBokJa. “These have been flown in fresh every week as they are made upon order before sending to Singapore.” During this festive season, she’s also bringing in Korean premium strawberries, Red Hyang mandarins, and hallabong (tangerines) air-flown from Jeju to Singapore weekly. She adds, “We have also brought in fresh Wando abalones and Pungcheon eels that are rarely found in Singapore.” 

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Louis Han, chef-owner, Nae:um 

Chef Louis Han, who hails from Gangnam, Seoul, has been living in Singapore for the last several years. The former head chef of Kimme, opened his own contemporary Korean restaurant, Nae:um, at Telok Ayer in mid-2021. 

The chef-restaurateur who’s heading back to Korea this year to celebrate the new year says that most Korean families enjoy white rice cake soup for their celebration. For them, the chewy rice cake symbolises good health, prosperity and longevity. Louis says that Koreans eat the white rice cake as a symbol of cleansing the body and soul to start the year. Eating it also signifies becoming another year older. His family would also include beef dishes for their festive meal. “I also usually drink sikhye, which is Korean fermented rice drink, and a few type of traditional sweets,” he adds. 

“For winter ingredients, I personally like to eat daikon. We can use it to make kimchi, soup, or salad. And I like the texture and clean, sweet taste. For now, we use daikon as garnish for our fish course,” he says. The samchi or Spanish mackerel is slow-roasted and served with slow-cooked daikon and salad of pickled winter mushrooms. 

(Related: Nae:um is chef-owner Louis Han’s love letter to South Korea)

Bannie Kang, bartender and owner of Side Door

Award-winning bartender Bannie Kang and her Singaporean husband chef Tryson Quek started their own private dining in Singapore in November 2021, after their stint in Taipei. For the past two years, South Korean-born Bannie hasn’t been able to travel home to Korea. Before the pandemic, she would go back at least once a year. She says, “I will be cooking Korean rice cake soup on the first day of the new year to keep the tradition going.”

She shares, “There are number of traditional Korean new year dishes that we cook, such as  Korean-style pork ribs stew, normally braised with Korean soya sauce and sesame oil.” There’s also rice cake soup with homemade dumplings (mandu). The vegetable stock soup base is simmered for four to five hours. “Traditionally this is the very first dish we eat on New Year’s morning.” Another dish that Koreans eat is jeon (Korean style pancake with five colours). “There are different kinds but they are normally coated with flour then egg, and pan-fried,” she adds.  

“For traditional teas, we will have sikhye (fermented sweet rice drink) and sujeonggwa (cinnamon ginger tea),”says Bannie, who was named Bartenders’ Bartender 2021 at the Asia’s 50 Best Bars. She adds that Koreans believe these drinks will help with digestion and to offset the oiliness of food. “As for desserts, we eat different types of rice cakes and seasonal fruits especially dried persimmon.”

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Kim Gi Deok, sous chef of Saint Pierre

What chef Kim Gi Deok misses most about new year celebrations in Korea is hanging out at his grandparents’ home. “My grandmother makes the best beef bone soup (gom tang)! While it is not a new year dish, she would always make it when we visit her.” He adds, “I love Singapore, but I do miss the snow in Korea sometimes.”

The chef who formerly worked at modern Korean restaurants Anju and Kimme says, “The most common dish we cook for Korean Lunar New Year is tteokguk or rice cake soup. There are two varieties of rice cake soup – one with dumplings or mandu, and the other is a simpler non-dumpling version. Both soups are made with beef stock.” He adds that some people use minced beef or sliced beef, depending on how each family’s recipe.

As beef is considered expensive, it is a treat enjoyed during such special occasions. “Tteok is white in colour and often signifies a new beginning and of purity. We usually use the tubular rice cakes – as they symbolise longevity – and slice it ourselves. You can buy pre-cut ones from supermarket these days. The sliced rice cakes look like coins and signify wealth,” he explains.

One of the winter ingredients from Korea that Gi Deok enjoys cooking with is burdock (ueong). “It is an underrated ingredient. It’s available throughout the year but you get the best quality from January to March. The root vegetable is full of nutrition and an excellent source of fibre,” he says. In Korea, this sweet earthy ingredient is typically served as a banchan (side dish) in Korea. It is also known as ueong jorim – burdock root braised in soy sauce.  He shares, “I like cooking burdock rice – it has a crispy and chewy texture and elevates white rice. Burdock also complements au jus from chicken and beef. Brunoised burdock infused with the stock adds a layer of depth.”

He adds, “There are a few traditional desserts or snacks that we eat. The most common ones are yakgwa (flower-shaped cookie coated with honey), yugwa (made with glutinous rice flour) and yaksik (sweet glutinous rice cake filled with honey, dried fruit, jujube, and chestnut).”