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Every year, around 1 or 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, Joline O’Leary drives home from a big New Year’s Eve party. Before turning in for the night, after the Champagne and fireworks, she eats a bowl of tteok guk, a humble Korean soup of beef broth boiled with thinly sliced, oblong ovals of tteok, or rice cakes. O’Leary, whom I met on a recent trip to Honolulu, is a fourth-generation Korean American. For her, this ritual is the first thing she likes to check off her list for the new year. “It’s good luck,” she said, “and I appreciate the tradition.”
In South Korea, it’s said that eating a bowl of rice-cake soup on New Year’s Day — whether by the Gregorian or Lunar calendar — marks the passing of a year, and turning a year older. The rice cakes, white as snow and shaped like little coins, symbolize purity and fortune; the long, cylindrical logs from which these rounds are cut, called garae tteok, are said to represent long life. Traditionally, the main method of counting a person’s age, known as “Korean age,” involved starting from 1 year old at birth — allotting for the time spent in the womb, one theory says — and then appending another year on Jan. 1. For many Koreans, “How many bowls of tteok guk have you eaten?” is one way of asking people their age.
But I’ve never been that fond of the dish. The rice-cake soup I was raised on in Atlanta came out of giant stainless-steel vats, from the church where my mother has volunteered faithfully for decades. It can be hard to make anything in that large a quantity taste good, especially tteok guk, which is already known for its clean-tasting blandness. The watery soup made the flavorless rice cakes harder to swallow.
For my friend Esther Choi, who grew up in South Jersey, it was the unfamiliarity of the rice cakes’ texture that gave her a hard time. “It’s not like I ate tteok on a regular basis,” she says. But Esther, now the chef and owner of multiple Korean restaurants in New York City, says she has grown to appreciate tteok guk for what it is, to love it even. It’s a starchy celebration of life. (“I’m still not running to eat it every year, though,” she added.)