Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rice Cake Making

Last weekend, I went to Gyeongju, which is situated in the south eastern part of Korea, for the annual Traditional Drink and Rice Cake Festival.

My day started with a visit to the immigration office in Seoul to register for my alien immigration card, which was fortunately a simple process and was not as painful as I was expecting(one of the things about travelling and living in foreign climes is having to sort out all of the paperwork, an unfortunate but necessary evil). I hate queueing and I hate having to get up early, especially knowing that I'm going to have to spend my morning queueing.

Everything was sorted out quickly, so then I was off to Seoul Station to get on the KTX, one of the new high speed trains which reaches speeds of around 300 kph. Booking the ticket was easy despite my lack of Korean and I learnt my first lesson about rail travel in Korea. At weekends and on holidays trains are often booked and full so getting a ticket immediately is often a slight problem. Fortunately I only had to wait about an hour and a half and at 3.30 I boarded the next available train.

I arrived in Gyeongju at 7.45 and I immediately jumped into a taxi and headed for the festival.

Although I had arrived late for many events that day it was still very busy and I got to see the live music performance which featured lots of Korean popstars. I also got to hear some easy listening music from someone who is apparently very famous, but whose name now unfortunately eludes me. Just picture the Korean equivalent of Tony Bennet in your minds eye and you're halfway there.

Afterwards I walked around and walked around and I sampled a few of the delicacies Korea has to offer in the various restaurants that had been set up.

The next morning I awoke relatively early nursing a slight hangover after inadvertently walking into a bar and staying there until three in the morning.

When I arrived at the festival I decided in the bests interests of learning about a new culture I should sample the various delights of Korean alcohol(and also because hair of the dog seemed like a good idea). I also got to try some rice cakes which were delicious and to see how rice cakes are traditionally made.

Rice cakes have a long tradition in Korean history and were important in many ceremonies and rituals. Today they are an important part of all holiday meals and served in important ceremonies such as weddings, a baby's first birthday, sixtieth birthdays (which are usually regarded as the start of a new life or rebirth) and ancestral memorial rites.

Known as tteok in Korea, they are different to the western style of cake as rice is used instead of flour for the basic dough material, with no eggs, milk or butter added. In total there are around three to four hundred different types of rice cake and many of the traditional ingredients may include beans, nuts, grains, mugwort or pumpkin.

The process varies from cake to cake but most are first made by grounding the cake into a powder. Then depending on what cake is being made the powder is moistened and steamed in an earthenware steamer or mixed with warm water and kneaded into a dough. The dough is then shaped, boiled or steamed. Some types of cake are also fried or pounded with huge mallets.

What I loved most about my first time travelling around Korea was how friendly everyone was. Wherever I went people wanted to come up and talk to me, be it about the traditions of rice making, the origin of traditional alcohol, popstars and singers or Korean culture in general. It gave me a greater insight into how warm and generous the Korean people are and I'm looking forward to visiting many more places in the near future.

For all the photos click here.