Fifteen days after the Lunar New Year, the full moon appears in the sky. 🎑 This first full moon of the year is called Jeongwol Daeboreum (정월대보름) in Korean and it has particular significance in traditional culture. 🌕 There are various customs associated with the event and they involve e.g. sharing food, watching the moon rise as well as playing with fire. In contemporary South Korea, however, such traditions are at risk to be forgotten as modern life takes over our daily routine. But the observance of the first full moon is worth preserving, particularly because the tradition features mostly plant-based foods! 💚🌱
What is Jeongwol Daeboreum? 정월대보름
The lunar calendar follows the moon phases, during which the moon waxes and wanes over a period of 30 days. While each month begins with a new moon 🌑 [meaning the moon is not visible in the sky], the crescent moon grows day by day until it is round and full. 🌒🌓🌔 On the 15th day, which marks the middle of the month, it has grown into a full moon. 🌕 Then, the crescent decreases until it is not visible anymore after the 30th day. 🌖🌗🌘 In this way, the lunar calendar tracks time and schedules events in various cultures of Asia.
Traditionally, one of the most important events was the first full moon after the beginning of the new year. In Korea, this is commemorated as Jeongwol Daeboreum, which is a kind of First Full Moon Festival observed in other cultures of East Asia as well.* The first full moon night occurs on the 15th day of the first month according to the Asian lunar calendar. This year, the date corresponds with 5 February 2023 of the Gregorian calendar. The date shifts every year, but it takes place in either January or February.**
Regarding the term Jeongwol Daeboreum, the word jeongwol (정월 正月) is an old name for the first month of the year. Boreum (보름) means “fortnight, fifteen days, day of the full moon” and sometimes even “full moon” (boreum-dal 보름달) by itself. The syllable dae (대), which is derived from the Sino-Korean character 大, means “big, large, great”. In summary, Jeongwol Daeboreum can be translated as “Great Full Moon of the First Month” or simply “Great First Full Moon“.***
On the occasion of the first full moon, Koreans used to practice certain customs, among which preparing and enjoying food together were key activities. 🧑🏻🌾👩🏻🍳🍚 These days, it is hard to see most of the other activities related to the traditional festival. [At least in a city like Seoul.] With regards to food, however, open-air markets, stores and even street vendors change their food displays and offer ingredients as well as pre-made dishes for the celebration of Jeongwol Daeboreum. In doing so, food vendors are reminding citizens of the upcoming event at least one week before the full moon, and make them hungry for its seasonal specialties. Let’s get a taste of the culinary customs for the first full moon festival in Korea! 🍽
Five Grain Rice 오곡밥
Essential for Jeongwol Daeboreum is a dish called ogokbap (오곡밥 五穀飯). The name translates to “five grain rice” and it is basically a colorful combination of rice, beans and other grains. 🌈🍚 In other words, it is a kind of mixed grains rice that consists traditionally of a fixed set of ingredients (but nowadays allows much more diversity).
Since its main ingredient is glutinous rice, the consistency of the cooked rice is more sticky than regular rice. Various beans, sorghum and millet provide proteins, vitamins as well as minerals resulting in a very nutritious dish. Needless to say, it is also vegan and gluten free by default. In traditional Korean food culture, rice is the most important dish during a meal and thus ogokbap‘s position during the moon festival is quite significant.
Originally, making ogokbap was a time-consuming undertaking, because each component needs to be rinsed, soaked in advance and cooked/steamed separately. Different to other kinds of cooked rice is also that it may be seasoned with salt and sesame oil before cooking. Ogokbap is a dish that can be made at home, but in modern Seoul, it is easy [and easiest!] to simply buy pre-made ogokbap. Around the time of Jeongwol Daeboreum, ready-to-eat ogokbap is available for take-away at e.g. rice cake stores (tteokjip 떡집) and stores selling side dishes (banchan gage 반찬가게). Grain vendors as well as vegetable stores simultaneously sell ingredients for the dish, sometimes even pre-soaked and pre-mixed for costumers.
These are the traditional components of ogokbap:
- ⚪️ glutinous rice (chapssal 찹쌀)
- ⚫️ black beans (geomeun kong 검은콩)
- 🔴 red beans (pat 팥)
- 🟤 sorghum (susu 수수)
- 🟢 Korean millet (chajo 차조) / 🟡 proso millet (gijang 기장)
But in modern times, the combination of grains varies a lot! Not only does it feature more than five grains, but the rice mix can be expanded with more colorful beans and grains! Depending on availability and personal preference, even seeds that are not necessarily beans, cereals or other grains may appear in ogokbap.
Here are additional ingredients, which are occasionally mixed into the rice:
- ⚪️ non-glutinous rice (mepssal 멥쌀)
- 🔴 kidney beans (gangnang kong 강낭콩)
- ⚪️ white kidney beans, navy beans (huin gangnang kong 흰강낭콩)
- 🔴 (ultari kong 울타리콩)
- 🔴 cranberry beans (horangi kong 호랑이콩)
- ⚪️ sword beans ( jakdu kong 작두콩)
- ⚫️ black-eyed peas, cowpeas (dongbu kong 동부콩)
- 🟢 green peas (wandu kong 완두콩)
- 🟡 chick peas (byeongari kong 병아리콩)
- 🟡 ginkgo nuts (eunhaeng 은행)
- 🥜 peanuts (ttang kong 땅콩)
- 🌰 chestnuts (bam 밤)
- 🌰 lotus seeds (yeonssi 연씨)
Dried Vegetables and Herbs 묵은나물
Above ogokbak is typically eaten alongside special side dishes made from dried vegetables and dried herbs, so-called mugeun namul (묵은나물), mungnamul (묵나물) or jinchae (진채 陳菜). Alternatively, they can be referred to as boreum namul (보름나물), particularly on the occasion of Jeongwol Daeboreum. In English, those names are sometimes translated as “winter vegetables” since the dried plants are what’s originally available during the cold season.**** ❄️ All kinds of vegetables, edible greens and wild herbs that have been dried can technically be called mugeun namul.
To prepare for the winter, edible parts of plants are dried and stored as food provisions. In fact, the Korean names are derived from the word 묵다 as well as the Chinese character 陳, which in this context means “old, aged”. So the names actually denote them as “aged and dried vegetables”. Jeongwol Daeboreum is an opportunity to festively eat the leftover dried vegetables before spring returns and fresh plants can be harvested again. 🌷 Aside from the practical effect of emptying the storage and making room for new food, the consumption of mugeun namul on the first full moon day has a symbolical connotation: It is believed to help your body endure the heat of the coming summer, and generally make you be able to spend the year well.
During Jeongwol Daeboreum, the vegetables are consumed in the form of side dishes, which are called banchan (반찬) in Korean. The dried vegetables are first soaked and then cooked until soft enough for consumption. Afterwards, they can additionally be stir-fried and mixed with basic seasonings such as garlic, salt, sesame seeds, sesame oil or perilla seed oil. Overall, they are prepared as simple sides preserving the original flavor of the plant. While all bring a lot of fiber, each kind of plant has a characteristic texture, taste and smell!
As with ogokbap, modern life enables us to enjoy mugeun namul without going through the hassle of soaking, cooking and seasoning each ingredient on our own! Many days in advance, supermarkets, banchan stores, fruit and vegetable stores will sell the particular vegetables and herbs, either dried or soaked. Closer towards the day itself, banchan stores tend to offer pre-made side dishes featuring said vegetables – cooked, seasoned and ready to eat!
Typically, an uneven number of different vegetable side dishes is served during the full moon festival – either three, five, seven or nine. Common representatives of such dried vegetables are various shoots and young leaves of spring herbs or mountain herbs, pieces of eggplant and green pumpkin, the outer leaves of radish as well as cabbage, leaf stems of sweet potato and other edible greens.
Thanks to technology we can store fresh vegetables for longer periods of time, so now sometimes the fresh version of a vegetable is used instead of the dried version. These days, particularly fresh spinach, soybean sprouts, fresh radish or fresh bellflower roots may be found among the actual dried vegetables. However, color and texture are different depending on whether the food was prepared with fresh or dried vegetables!
Here is a list of herbs and vegetables which are enjoyed as mugeun namul.
- 🥒 slices of dried squash, Korean courgette (hobak goji 호박고지)
- 🥒 slices of dried cucumber (o-i goji 오이고지)
- 🍆 pieces of dried eggplant (geon gaji 건 가지 / gaji goji 가지고지)
- 🥕 strips of dried radish (mu mallaengi 무말랭이)
- 🌷 dried bellflower root, balloon flower, Platycodon (geon doraji 건 도라지)
- 🍠 dried leaf stems of sweet potato (geon gogumasun 건 고구마순)
- ☘️ dried leaf stems of taro (geon torandae 건 토란대)
- 🌿 dried fern sprouts, bracken (geon gosari 건 고사리)
- 🌿 dried radish greens (musiraegi 무시래기 / mucheong 무청 / sometimes also ugeoji 우거지)
- 🥬 dried outer leaves of napa cabbage (ugeoji 우거지)
- 🌿 coastal hog fennel, Peucedanum japonicum (bangpung namul 방풍나물)
- 🌿 dried leaves of cutleaf coneflower (geon samnip gukhwa 건 삼잎국화)
- 🍁 dried leaves of castor oil plant, Ricinus (geon ajukkari 건 아주까리 / pimaja namul 피마자나물)
- 🌿 dried gondre, Korean thistle, Cirsium setidens (geon gondeure 건 곤드레)
- 🌿 dried chwinamul, Doellingeria scabra (geon chwinamul 건 취나물 / chamchwi 참취)
- ☘️ dried Fischer’s ragwort, Fischer’s leopard plant, Ligularia fischeri (geon gomchwi 건 곰취)
- ☘️ dried plantago, Plantago asiatica (geon jilgyeongi namul 건 질경이나물)
- ☘️ dried butterbur, Petasites japonicus (geon meowi 건 머위)
- 🌿 dried dandelion (geon mindeulle 건 민들레)
- 🥬 dried celtuce shoots (sansangchu saesun 산상추새순 / gungchae saesun 궁채새순)
- 🍃 dried mulberry leaves (ppongnip 뽕잎)
- 🍃 dried young leaves of Korean wild kiwi, hardy kiwi, Actinidia arguta (geon daraesun 건 다래순 / mungnamul 묵나물)
- 🌿 young leaves of Japanese lady bell, Adenophora triphylla (jandae sun 잔대순)
- 🎍 bamboo shoots (juksun 죽순)
- 🍄 shiitake mushrooms (geon pyogo beoseot 건표고버섯) [biologically not a vegetable, but a mushroom]
Wraps Filled with Luck 복쌈
Not exactly a dish on its own, but rather a method of eating is bokssam (복쌈). For bokssam, you take a spoonful of rice and wrap it into something – for example a large leaf – before putting it into your mouth. The background here is that ssam (쌈) means “wrap” and bok (복 福) means “luck, fortune”.
Figuratively speaking, wrapping food for bokssam is like packing small, edible bundles of luck. Korean food culture has a few more instances featuring small food wraps (ssam 쌈), but specifically on Jeongwol Daeboreum, it signifies the wish for good luck in the coming year. In an agricultural society, fortune would particularly mean a bountiful harvest. 👨🌾👩🌾 A case of food being able to bring luck, in a most literal sense!
For bokssam, cooked rice such as ogokbap and some kind of edible wrapping material are necessary. Any kind of leaf vegetable is ideal as long as it is big enough to be filled. ☘️🍁 In addition to that, the large leaves are normally steamed or blanched, so that they are soft enough to flexibly wrap around the filling. Another popular option is roasted sea laver, alias gim (김), whose wrapping suitability is familiar from dishes like gimbap and sushi. 🍣 During the meal, there could be either pre-assembled bokssam on the table, or rice and wrappers are served alongside each other so that everyone can make their own tiny packages of rice as they eat. A seasoning sauce or dip may also be found in connection with bokssam.
The following greens are usually used for bokssam during Jeongwol Daeboreum:
- 🥬 leaves of napa cabbage (baechu 배추)
- 🍣 roasted sea laver, nori (gim 김)
- ☘️ leaves of Fischer’s ragwort, Fischer’s leopard plant, Ligularia fischeri (gomchwi 곰취 / sometimes abbreviated as chwinamul 취나물 or chwinip 취잎)
- ☘️ leaves of butterbur, Petasites japonicus (meowi 머위)
- 🍁 leaves of castor oil plant, Ricinus (pimajanip 피마자잎)
- ☘️ taro leaves (toranip 토란잎)
- 🎃 pumpkin leaves (hobangnip 호박잎)
Cracking Whole Nuts 부럼
Another Korean custom is cracking whole nuts and eating them – this activity is called bureom (부럼). 🥜🌰 Traditionally, hard-shelled nuts were cracked with one’s teeth, which was believed to ensure healthy teeth. But for the sake of actual dental health, most people use modern tools these days! 🦷
The point is to use nuts that are whole, so they can be opened by hand and bring health. Under contemporary conditions, however, shelled nuts are most common in stores and machines carry out the laborious task of separating the core from the nutshells. So for the occasion of Jeongwol Daeboreum, food vendors stock up specifically on whole nuts! Locations which trade in dried goods, for instance, naturally have nuts including whole walnuts, chestnuts and peanuts. Even fruit and vegetable stores may temporarily offer such nuts for Jeongwol Daeboreum.
The following selection of hard-shelled nuts and seeds is typically used for bureom:
- 🌰 chestnuts (bam 밤)
- 🌰 walnuts (hodu 호두)
- 🥜 peanuts (ttangkong 땅콩)
- 🟡 ginkgo nuts (eunhaeng 은행)
- 🌲 pine nuts (jat 잣)
Medicinal Rice 약밥 / 약식
Yakbap (약밥) is glutinous rice which has been steamed together with beans, nuts and dried fruits, and is seasoned with soy sauce, sugar (sometimes honey) and sesame oil. Accordingly, it tastes sweet as well as salty, while bringing roasted aromas and sweet flavors. It is a rather nutritious kind of cooked rice, and can be eaten as is – like a small meal on its own.
The name yakbap or alternatively yaksik (약식 藥食) indicates that this kind of dish has been considered as healthy and nourishing, since it translates to “medicine rice” or “medicinal food” respectively. In the past, it was a special treat to be enjoyed during holidays and certain events. At present, yakbap is a rather common food item in modern South Korea and available everyday at almost any store that sells rice cakes. The toppings are usually colorful, although exact ingredients vary largely by manufacturer and have diversified in recent years.
Common toppings of yakbap are as follows:
- 🍒 jujube (daechu 대추)
- 🍇 raisins (geon podo 건포도)
- 🟡 ginkgo nuts (eunhaeng 은행)
- 🌰 chestnuts (bam 밤)
- 🌰 walnuts (hodu 호두)
- 🌲 pine nuts (jat 잣)
- 🎃 pumpkin seeds (hobakssi 호박씨)
- 🌻 sunflower seeds (haebaragi ssi 해바라기씨)
- 🌰 almonds (amondeu 아몬드)
- 🟢 green peas (wandu kong 완두콩)
Liquor for Red Ears 귀밝이술
On the morning of Jeongwol Daeboreum, drinking a liquor called gwibalgisul (귀밝이술) is another local custom. 🍶 Gwibalgisul and its alternative name imyeongju (이명주 耳明酒) mean literally “red ear wine” suggesting that the alcohol makes your ears glow red. 👂 Rather than it being a certain kind of drink, it denotes liquor drank in the morning of the first full moon day.
Normally, it is any liquor belonging to the group of cheongju (청주 淸酒), which includes various types of Korean clear rice wine.***** Different to other times, the wine was drunk in its cold state; and people of all ages and genders were allowed to drink!
Drinking one cup of clear liquor in the morning before eating breakfast not only supposedly makes your ears turn red: According to the folk belief, it promised to make you hear nothing but good news during the new year!
Full Bellies for the Full Moon
In a nutshell, the Korean First Full Moon Festival involves a lot of food! 🌝 There is a diversity of dishes and drinks for Jeongwol Daeboreum, which by coincidence (?) are primarily plant-based.****** All foods are ascribed positive effects on the body or promise fortune for the new year. Apart from the dishes introduced above, eating and enjoying food together is a significant part of the celebration. It was also custom to eat early in the day and then share more food with neighbors. In this context, drinking and eating were auspicious acts. 🍀
Today, ogokbap, banchan consisting of dried vegetables, nuts as well as yakbap can be purchased conveniently and consumed any time of the year. But let’s not forget that in earlier times, they used to be something special! Whether you believe in the superstitious practices of the full moon celebration or not, the food is at least tasty and healthy!
*) Each culture has a different name and local customs for the First Full Moon Festival. In China, the occasion is celebrated as the Lantern Festival (yuánxiāo jié 元宵節 / shàngyuán jié 上元節). The Japanese equivalent to this tradition is the Little New Year (koshōgatsu 小正月).
**) In 2021, the day was 26 February 2021. Year 2022’s date fell on 15 February. Next year, the date will be on 24 February 2024.
***) “Great Full Moon” refers to the moon as a supermoon, when the moon appears larger because it is closer to earth than at other times. But since the orbit of the moon changes over the course of the years, a supermoon does not always occur in the same month as Jeongwol Daeboreum.
****) There are, however, more vegetables that are available in the wintertime and cannot be considered as mugeun namul because they are consumed fresh and not dried. The translation “winter vegetables” is therefore imprecise.
*****) Alternative names are yakju (약주 藥酒) and malgeunsul (맑은술). Cheongju stands in contrast to takju (탁주 濁酒), which is milky rice wine such as makgeolli (막걸리) and dongdongju (동동주). Cheongju is a clear and refined spirit and considered to be more noble than unfiltered takju.
******) The finalized dining table for Jeongwol Daeboreum may look different at each household and could nowadays feature more than above mentioned vegan dishes. Regardless, it is worth noting that the main components of this festival are plants.