Hi readers. I’m currently on my way back from vacation, so from afar, I’m delighted to introduce this post, by Carly Diaz, one that’ll transport us to the kitchens of Korea. It’s a recipe for gyeongdan–Korean sweet rice cakes–and a story about learning to love them.
The first time I tasted sweet red bean paste, I nearly choked. It was the summer of 2006, the air was thick with humidity and the sound of cicadas. Everywhere around me were bright lights, loud music, street carts, and hired girls dancing in front of an electronics shop as part of the grand opening celebration. I had recently moved to Seoul in a post-graduation flurry and planned to spend the next 12 months writing, applying to grad schools, and teaching English.
In my defense, I was given the bean-filled pastry and told it was the Korean-version of a cream-filled doughnut. Instead of a light cream, I received a mouthful of thick beans. And not just any beans. Sweet beans. It would not be the last time that an unfamiliar taste heightened the sense that I was in foreign territory. That first taste of sweet red beans marked the slow transition of the unfamiliar to the familiar. Over the next year, the wholly unfamiliar world of South Korea would become one that I navigated with relative ease, one bite at a time.
In September, during the Korean harvest festival Chuseok, I was confronted with the sweet red bean paste again when I received a box of songpyeon. The traditional moon-shaped Chuseok dessert is made with sweet rice flour and filled with the paste. I nimbly took a bite and found that I liked it. It wasn’t the kind of confection I had grown up with, but there was something about the sticky rice cake and the subtly sweet, earthy, protein-y richness of the red beans that appealed to my acclimating taste buds.