It’s spring! What better way to commemorate a season of daffodils and violets than with baby pictures?¹ My cousin’s daughter (who is my first cousin once removed, but I’ll refer to her as my niece consistent with Korean genealogy²) recently celebrated her first birthday. Koreans use first birthdays as an excuse to party, eat, and dress up the baby in fancy clothes. Several horrible lies have been sandwiched in among the facts on today’s post. See if you can spot them.
After we sang “Happy Birthday,” my niece had to choose from an array of items that would determine her future: a golf club, a stethoscope, a pen, a spool of thread, a golf ball (my cousin likes golf), a book, and cash in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, and $100. She picked the stethoscope and tried to eat it. I believe that one day my niece will be CEO of a company specializing in edible organic novelty medical equipment so realistic and so delicious that it will put the current edible jewelry and candy ring companies to shame. She picked up a pen too, so she may also write a bestselling memoir about her edible organic novelty medical equipment career. Keep an eye out for it in 50 years or so.
Duk is similar to Japanese mochi and comes in a staggering number of varieties: squishy or stiff, topped or stuffed, layered or rolled, savory or sweet, fried or steamed, poured or kneaded, leavened or ballooned. Duk houses, not bakeries, can be found all over Korea. My mother contributed four heavy trays of assorted duk from a popular duk house in Chicago. The green duk is my favorite type of duk and roughly translates into “wind duk,” so named because the duks are sealed with air trapped inside in addition to a sweet sesame seed stuffing. When you bite into wind duk it pops. The experience is less exciting than it sounds but is nonetheless slightly more exciting than eating food that doesn’t pop. The pink and white duk is a filled duk with a lotus design and more sweet sesame seed filling. While it tastes the same as wind duk, it doesn’t pop.
The traditional Korean attire is called a hanbok. My mother pulled out my brother’s first birthday hanbok, now more than 25 years old. At the top are lavender pants and a black head covering. To the left are a pair of ties that secure the pants at the ankles. In the second photo you can see the ritual first birthday beheading lunge at the baby. This is delivered with a violent scream. If she doesn’t flinch she will live a long life; if she flinches she’s beheaded. Note that instead of cake we have layered rainbow duk with gray duk lettering and pink duk roses. You thought I was kidding about Koreans and duk, didn’t you? My mother sternly ordered me not to bake anything for the party because nobody would eat my food due to the special-ordered duk. This hurt my feelings. Stupid duk.
Here you can see my niece’s beautiful hanbok. In the second photograph you see her mother conducting the ritual first birthday baby conflagration. The baby survived, which means that she will develop X-ray vision and the ability to fly.
While vegetables always abound, you can’t have a Korean party without kalbi—grilled marinated short ribs. This particular kalbi was made with an extra thin cut of short ribs and was outstanding. The scallion pancakes are pajeon.
Any respectable Korean table will have ample red on it, evidence of Korea’s love of chilies. Stir fried squid and kimchi dishes add their characteristic crimson to the buffet. Did you know that Koreans consume more garlic per capita than any other country? Two kinds of rice (not pictured) were offered: steamed white rice and steamed white rice with beans. Rice is often mixed with other grains in Korea especially now that the healthiness of whole grains is better understood. It’s not unusual to see a handful of millet, barley, and beans thrown in with the white rice, brown rice, black rice, or a mixture of different rices. Pressure rice cookers have become a popular way to cook the dried beans and rice without soaking the beans first.
The 60th birthday is also celebrated with a great deal of fanfare. I’ll be 93 by then. Keep an eye on this space because if I manage to live that long, that party will rock the house. Some of the photos may require black rectangles to protect your innocence.
1 Baby photographs posted with permission.
2 Under the Korean system parents and siblings are second degree relatives, a parent’s siblings are third degree relatives, and their children are fourth degree relatives (first cousins). The daughter of a first cousin would be a distant fifth degree niece. The daughter of a sibling would be a closer third degree niece.