I don’t know about you, but I find myself missing Korea in autumn. When I lived there, my favorite season was this time of year. The environment cools, the trees show such radiant colors, and all the harvest festivals, grand and pastoral, captivate residents and visitors alike.
Among my cherished memories is when I stood huddled on a cold night in Seoul near a street vendor selling chestnuts. I bought some chestnuts in a paper container and ate them on the spot.
The smell and taste remain to carry me forward to another taste in the future!
Korean chestnuts (bamnamu) are bigger than American and other versions and less sweet. However, their nutty, smoked flavor is appealing. They appear in stores, fresh and canned, sometimes sold as a snack and pre-roasted at markets for sale in bags.
My favorite is to buy them on the street. Koreans call this way of eating chestnuts gunbam (roasted chestnuts). Wikipedia has an entry on Korean chestnuts and their sellers, as well as the folk song “Gunbam Taryeong,” which exists in several versions on YouTube.
The website Maangchi has some wonderful recipes for chestnuts. First, enjoy yulan or chestnut cookies (no-bake!).
They’re a confection originally designed for royalty and yangban officials. Korean chestnuts when used in this dessert are boiled, mashed and then formed into balls with honey and rolled, crushed pine nuts.
Chestnuts also appear in rice cakes. They are part of yaksik, a dish of rice with dried fruit and other nuts. They’re sometimes an ingredient in white kimchi (baek kimchi). Chestnuts are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, copper, potassium and other vitamins and minerals, too.
During the holiday of Daeboreum, the lunar year’s first full moon, chestnuts form one part of the dish buryeom. Buryeom consists of various nuts, including walnuts and gingko.
An entry in the blog “My Dear Korea” (mydearkorea.blogspot.com) says chestnuts represent the Earth and the kidneys and feature in a traditional prayer for family harmony.
USC Digital Folklore reports a Korean tradition of throwing chestnuts and dates to symbolize fertility and health of children. The ceremony pyebaek involves giving these nuts to a bride as a wedding pre-ceremony.
A bride later visits her in-laws to give them chestnuts and dates as a present. The in-laws throw them at the bride’s skirt for her to catch. However many she catches represents how many children she will have in the future.
Chestnuts appear in Chuseok celebrations as a dish (joyulsii). They join other types of nuts and fruit in a ceremonial display.
An article on ritual Korean foods at ancestral rite tables by Lee Chang-heon, Kim Young, Kim Yang-suk, and Yun Young mentions chestnuts in traditional court and temple contexts. Their placement in various specific locations on the ritual table shows the orchestrated and refined form of the ceremonies over centuries of use.
Chestnuts stand for the harvest and its promise. They remind us of fall’s plenty and the need to conserve for the winter months to come.
They represent the cycle of life and point to means of survival. They give a source of nutrition to keep us alive and well.
They appear in rituals representing the beginning and end of life and the memory of loved ones. They taste great! All of this in one bite in fall. Enjoy this simple part of Korea!