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For most Americans, New Year’s has come and gone, but for many Asian communities, it’s still on the way. On February 19, the Lunar New Year rolls around, and with it comes a slew of interesting (and delicious) food traditions. One is Korean tteokguk, which you can find at Seoul Garden (34 West 32nd Street #2; 212-736-9002) during a special celebratory feast.
The standard holiday (and birthday) dish is composed of beef broth and rice cakes. Garnishes differ from family to family or restaurant to restaurant. At Seoul Garden, the dish is served with scallions, egg, sweet potato glass noodles, beef, and an optional dumpling addition.
The belief is similar to the Chinese lore of eating long noodles for longevity. While the rice cake is sliced into thin diagonal strips, it’s purchased in long tubes, which are said to represent a long life for the person consuming it. And the white hue is meant to represent purity and cleanliness for the coming year. “Everyone eats Korean rice cakes,” says Patty Koo, owner of Seoul Garden. “Even if you don’t like it, you have to try a bite.”
While Koreans generally spend Christmas with friends, the annual change of the calendar is meant to be a family holiday. Typically, the morning of the Lunar New Year’s Day (Koreans also celebrate the days before and after) starts with tteokguk and a ritual of bowing to one’s elders, who give money and impart words of wisdom. “It’s pretty much things like ‘work hard’ and ‘make lots of money,’ ” says Koo. “In my early twenties, it was ‘find a good husband and have great kids.’ ”
Sweet rice cakes are given to one another throughout the day.
Koo remembers watching her mom make the stock and slice the noodles in their Southern California kitchen as a kid. Where more traditional families perform ancient rituals to honor their ancestors through dress and memorials, Koo’s family was slightly less married to those customs. Like many other Koreans, they frequently celebrated on the Gregorian New Year on January 1, rather than according to the lunar calendar.
Their modest departure from convention isn’t exactly a surprise given her parents’ background. After emigrating to South America from Korea, her parents, Man Suh Koo and Myong Ja, met in Paraguay, got married in Argentina, moved back to Paraguay (where Koo and her brother were born), then up and moved to California to run a string of successful clothing manufacturing businesses together. Myong Ja, however, always dreamed of owning a restaurant. So, after retiring from her previous line of work, it was time for her to follow her passion. Seventeen years ago, a cousin pointed her in the direction of a second-floor space in Koreatown, and Seoul Garden has been churning out authentic Seoul-style Korean food ever since. “She would help Dad with his businesses,” says Koo. “It was her turn. So he had to move out here, too.”
Five years ago, Koo moved from her lifelong home of Southern California to run the restaurant for her mom. With a background in fashion, Koo found the restaurant biz a stark departure from her previous line of work. “I said, ‘Let’s see if I can do this.’ The only experience I had in restaurants was eating in them,” she says.
Koo has managed to pull it off admirably; she’s carrying on with the family institution. Armed with her mom’s tteokguk recipe, she’s also continuing the holiday tradition. The dish will be offered all day long on February 19, in addition to the full menu of offerings, and all guests who visit on the Lunar New Year will be given rice cakes (flavored with black sesame and red bean) for dessert.