Since the ancient times, on the morning of New Year's Day, Koreans made tteokguk(sliced rice cake soup), offered it to ancestors, and shared it with the whole family. Tteokguk is a dish that must be included on the ancestral rites on New Year’s Day and the table for the New Year’s guests. The first dish is eaten on New Year’s Day, so older people would ask, “How many bowls of tteokguk did you have?” when they asked younger people how old they were. Tteokguk is called “cheomsebyeong” because it is the “rice cake that adds to the age.”
Reference. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs
It is common to make tteokguk in white broth without adding strong seasoning for the New Year. This is because of our people’s intention to project reverence and holiness felt in the white color. Also, the lean and long shape of garaetteok(rice cake stick), the main ingredient of tteokguk, and its coin-like circular shape show our ancestors’ earnest wish for their family’s health and affluence. At the beginning of 2022, let’s look at the various meanings of white tteokguk one by one.
Our nation is sometimes called the “white-clad folk.” Regarding its origin, Choe Nam-seon’s <Common Sense Questions and Answers> states, “Proudly wearing white, which signifies the brilliance of the sun, became the whole nation’s custom.” There are also many opinions that making and eating white tteokguk on New Year’s Day originated from the sun worship in the ancient times. It is interpreted as using white tteok to express brightness as New Year’s Day is the first day of the new year, while the circular tteok was modeled after the circular shape of the sun. Thus, eating tteokguk, which was in auspicious white, and having a new resolution could be a type of ritual. Originally, tteok was a sacred dish offered on the ancestral rites table, so making it into a soup and sharing it together could be an attempt to bring sanctity into one’s daily life.
On the other hand, there are different interpretations of the etymology of the word, “Seolnal(New Year’s Day),” which refers to the beginning of the new year. There are theories, including “unfamiliarity,” the one meaning “the beginning,” the one meaning “the day of refraining and being careful” from the old Korean word, “to refrain from,” the one meaning “to age one year older” from the Korean word counting age, and so on. There is no way to confirm which one is correct, but it seems clear that one should be careful with one’s speech and behavior at the beginning of the new year, an unfamiliar time that is not yet integrated into the new time or public order.
The typical tteokguk that is described when people say “seolnal(New Year’s Day) tteokguk” is made by boiling circular garaetteok in a beef broth, and serving it with shredded beef and egg garnishes on top. However, tteokguk also has a delicious local character after mixing it with various ingredients that can be obtained in the area. In Gyeongsangnam-do, which faces the sea, you can taste tteokguk with a rich sea flavor, since it includes seaweed fulvescens, oysters, shrimps, and clams. In Gangwon-do, tteokmandutguk(sliced rice cake and dumpling soup) containing Chodang dubu(Chodang bean curd), the region’s specialty, is served on the New Year’s ritual table, and in Jeju, people make refreshing moumtteokguk by using gulfweed on New Year’s Day and throughout winter. In Jeolla-do, tteokguk is made with “dakjang(Korean chicken braised in soy sauce)” as the broth ingredient, which boasts of a savory flavor that is different from beef broth. There are also some unfamiliar tteokguk dishes. The Chungcheong-do region is famous for naltteokguk, which is made by tearing tteok like sujebi(hand-pulled dough soup) into the broth, and in Gaeseong, Hwanghae-do, joraengi tteok shaped like a gourd is put into the dish. Moreover, in the northern part, where it is difficult to farm rice, it is more common to put dumplings made with flour or buckwheat in a broth, instead of rice on the New Year’s table.
If there is still tteok left in the refrigerator after the whole family ate it on New Year’s Day, it may be good to wait until Jeongwol Daeboreum(the 15th day of the lunar New Year: the first full moon) before taking it out. “Eating seol(New Year’s) tteok” is the custom in Gangwon-do, while in the mountainous area of Jeollabuk-do, eating tteok made on New Year’s Day is to obtain good luck on Jeongwol Daeboreum. If the seol tteok is consumed on the day before or on the day of Jeongwol Daeboreum, the eldest daughter of the household will marry and live well.
This custom, which is called “eating hard tteok,” “grilling and eating white tteok,” or “eating jeolpyeon(patterned rice cake), continues to this day, and is supported by the proverb, “It is good to eat seol tteok until Jeongwol Daeboreum.”
There are several ways to eat seol tteok, depending on the region. The hardened rice cake is eaten as it is or steamed again, and by boiling it in dumpling soup, or adding it to sticky rice and steaming it together. People eat seol tteok with the belief that it will get rid of troubles, like the bureom(nuts) breaking custom on the morning of the first full moon day to pray for good health for the year. However, it seems like the custom originated from the wisdom of our people who wanted to be frugal when it comes to food ingredients.