Porridge Just Right

Though red beans are consumed year-round, winter is one of the best times to savor the mythical and gastronomical advantages of patjuk.

On the longest night of the year, during the coldest month of the season, Koreans traditionally sit down to a bowl of patjuk, or red bean porridge. The winter solstice (dongji in Korean) is marked by the consumption of this dish due to generations of passed down folklore, and has come to represent a traditional constant.

The popular belief was that the color red frightens off spirits and dispels misfortune, hence the red-colored pat beans of the patjuk. It was customary to sprinkle some of the porridge in the kitchen, front gate and yard before consumption, in order to ward off demons and protect from infectious diseases. It is believed that these practices originated from the tale of Gong Gong, a man who died on the winter solstice. Legend has it that Gong Gong hated patjuk with a passion, which is why his spirit shies away when confronted by it at a household.

However, the most characteristic trait of patjuk is the saealsim rice cakes, which provide a break in texture from the softened beans. Saeal literally means “bird’s egg”, in reference to the shape and color of the glutinuous rice balls that dot each bowl of patjuk. It was believed that a person should eat the same number of saealsim as his/her age, which gave rise to the dongji colloquialism “I ate another year” (I am a year older).

Patjuk is a fairly simple dish to make, being comprised of sweetened red beans, rice and water. The minimalist dish was typically consumed by itself, with no side dishes, which is contrary to most Korean cuisine. This was due to the fact that it used to be a winter meal, made when grains were sparse. Today, patjuk is often eaten in accompaniment with dongchimi, white water kimchi.

Patjuk has a slightly sweet taste and a smooth texture. There is a variety of different traditional porridges (chicken, pumpkin, black sesame, etc), but it is patjuk that retains a much-loved winter niche.

Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, December 2011

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