History of Pasta and Its Influence in the U.S. – June Sohn

Ever since the Portuguese explorer Magellan set foot on foreign land, the humanity has been passionate about exploration and globalization. In a society where technology is so advanced and trade prospers, countries have interactions with one another. Such has led to immense dissemination of cultures. Everything from food to language has crossed borders to reach people all throughout the world. This is the case for Italian culture as well; its culture has expanded beyond its territory to countries all over the planet, especially the United States of America. A famous dish in Italy, pasta has endearing meaning to Italians. Its influence is so prominent in the U.S. that Italian cuisine, such as spaghetti, is often confused as American dishes. The history of Italian pasta in the United States is fairly short, but its significance to locals and immigrants alike is substantial.

            Pasta has multiple meanings in Italian, but it most directly translates to the term “paste” (History Kitchen). This term is used to define various food items in Italian, from noodles to pastries, but in the context of this essay, it means a form of noodle made from “unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs” (History Kitchen). It is crucial to specifically highlight the use of durum wheat in traditional Italian pasta, for this is the key ingredient that distinguishes it from other wheat noodles. The durum wheat dough is cut into different shapes of varying sizes well suited to each type of dish being made. A precise chronicle of pasta is difficult to delineate, but its cultural significance has been growing and abounding in the nation since about the 13th century (History Kitchen).

            Some theorize that pasta was brought to Italy by Marco Polo in the 13th century (Lopez). Many believe that Polo brought the concept of wheat-based noodles from his adventures in Central Asia, particularly China (Lopez). This theory is heavily based on the book Polo wrote called Divasament dou Monde, commonly known as The Travels of Marco Polo (Culinary Lore). Polo supposedly wrote extensively about a new type of pasta that he discovered in China, leading people into assumptions that Polo brought this newfound food into Italy (Culinary Lore). A frequent mistake in anthropological studies have been made in such assumption; meaning was lost during translation and oral retellings of this book, for its original copy had been lost (History Kitchen). If one goes back in time and examines a relatively accurate Italian version of the text, however, he or she will learn that the descriptions of Chinese pasta was based off of what Polo had already known about (Culinary Lore). The illustration of “Chinese” pasta was far too familiar to be something Polo had never seen before, as if he was describing something that already had designated terms for (Culinary Lore). With many more texts and evidences that exist that dates well before Marco Polo’s travels to China, this theory is rather incredulous (Culinary Lore). The very first introduction of pasta still remains a mystery.

            Early renditions of pasta were called “macaroni,” which translates to “kneading dough with energy” in Sicilian dialect (Demetri). It did not simply refer to the shape of pasta that we normally see in a macaroni and cheese dish; it described any type of noodles that were served as a meal in the olden days. Macaroni dishes gained its popularity in Sicily, for durum wheat was a staple in this sunny island. As more people were exposed to macaroni, durum wheat traveled to mainland Italy, where it thrived (Demetri). Pasta became a well-known dish all throughout Italy.

            More variations in shapes came to rise as more people came to favor pasta dishes. Cooks and mothers began to invent more shapes to make pasta more suitable for the sauce they were making, and today, more than 300 different types of pasta shapes, from penne to racchette, exist, all made out of durum flour and water (Demetri). Often these noodles are dried to ensure longer shelf life (Demetri). As the world was getting ready to expand, more voyagers set sail into the new world, where these pastas were often cooked and eaten on boats (Demetri). Drying the pasta allowed explorers to eat an adequate meal, even away from home (Demetri).

            These voyages into the New World were not just important for the invention of dried pasta commonly consumed today, but it also played a major role in the stereotypical pasta sauce eaten this very day: tomato sauce. Italy did not have tomatoes to eat until the 19th century, when the Spaniards brought this plant to Italy during their invasions (Demetri). Tomatoes weren’t the only things that the Spaniards introduced to Italians; through these invasions that Italy faced, the concept of family, a key principle in Italian families today, grew thicker and prevailed in the hearts of Italians. Through many invasions in addition to Spanish invasions, Italy faced numerous struggles. This allowed families to bond and share the true importance of one another.

            This significant strand of culture was brought to the United States in the late 18th century (Cannato). Destruction and dejection left behind by World War I sparked a massive surge of immigration into the United States (“How Pasta Came to America”). Shrugging off the impact of the war, Italians, typically those from Southern Italy, headed to the U.S. to live the American dream, settling mostly in the East Coast, such as Boston and New York City (“How Pasta Came to America”). When immigrants arrived in the U.S., it was common for them to assimilate into American culture, for it was their new home (Cannato). Yet it was significant for Italians to integrate into American culture, not in a “melting pot” kind of way, but in a “salad bowl” way (Cannato). Though many settlers learned to speak English and adopted American customs, it was critical that they maintain their culinary traditions (Cannato). Language and ways of thinking can go, but food needed to remain. Customarily, before immigrating to the U.S., Italians were famous for pride in their regional recipes. Cooking culture and methods differed from one region to another, and it was important for individuals to abide to their local recipes. However, those who relocated to the United States soon realized that they were living with Italians of diverse origins (Toscana Divino). There were people from Sicily, while others traveled from Rome. Naturally, these groups of people began to cooperate with one another, and culinary cultures fused into one culture known as Italian-American cuisine (Toscana Divino).

             Because most Italian settlers in the United States was from Southern Italy, restaurants mainly served dishes typical of Southern Italy: pizza, pasta with tomato sauce, and pasta with olive oil (McMillan). Meatballs, already popularly consumed in the U.S., was eaten together with Italian pasta, giving rise to a widely favored and accepted dish: spaghetti and meatballs (McMillan). The ingredients that were ordinarily found in Southern Italy could not be found in the U.S. For instance, the type of tomato that was used to make tomato-based sauce in mainland Italy was called plum tomatoes (Montany). Plum tomatoes were ideal for making quickly making pasta sauces, for its skin was thin and lacked seeds (Montany). However, settlers in the U.S. found that the tomatoes commonly found in American markets during the 19th century were completely unlike plum tomatoes; these American tomatoes had thick skin with a great deal of seeds (Montany). This dissimilarity of ingredients, though technically the “same” ingredient, called for a deviation from traditional recipes. Immigrants had to adjust their recipes by adding increasing the amount of sugar and garlic added to the sauce (Montany). The sauce also had to be cooked longer to fully cook the thick skins of American tomatoes (Montany). As a result, the pasta sauce became thicker and chunkier, just like the sauce in a classic Italian-American dish. Slowly, more Northern Italians began to emigrate out of Italy and immigrate into the United States, cooking less with tomatoes and introduced risottos and wine-based pasta sauces (McMillan).

            Upon the arrival of non-tomato-based pasta dishes, there was an introduction to the well-adored dish today: Fettucine Alfredo. This creamy dish with thick, wide noodles was not initially cooked in the U.S. Though this story may not be accurate, it is widely believed that this dish was first developed by a man known as Alfredo. A chef at a renowned restaurant, Alfredo was struggling to keep his wife satiated; she was pregnant and was suffering from nausea that could not be controlled (“Is Fettucine Alfredo”). Just like the majority of Italian homes, Alfredo’s house placed great importance on unity and care for families, and this was brought to his family through noodles. Rumor has it that Alfredo made his wife pasta with parmesan and butter, and his wife was in love with it (“Is Fettucine Alfredo”). At his restaurant, Alfredo introduced his customers to his newly invented pasta dish, and it received extraordinary praises. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, a couple from the United States, was able to buy this recipe from Alfredo and bring it back to the U.S., where different variations of this dish arose (“Is Fettucine Alfredo”). Instead of the relatively light nature of butter and cheese, Americans demanded thicker, creamier texture and flavor. More ingredients, such as chicken, seafood, and broccoli, were added to this pasta to enhance the flavors as well. An initially Italian dish made to satiate not only hunger but also values of a family in Italy, Fettucine Alfredo became a prominent dish in the U.S. as an Italian-American dish, perhaps bringing together both the locals and immigrants together.

            Preference held by Americans also altered the ways in which Italian immigrants cooked, especially in their restaurants. As a consequence of immense invasions, Italian food had Spanish and Mediterranean traces. One of the main sources of ingredients was eggplants and cheese. As a result, an extremely popular dish in Italy was Mellenzana alla Parmigiana, or Eggplant Parmigiana (“The Story Behind”). This dish called for deep-fried eggplants to be topped with a light tomato sauce – one made with traditional Italian recipe with thin plum tomatoes (“The Story Behind”). The dish is finally garnished with Parmesan cheese, making the dish saltier and creamier. Mellenzana alla Parmigiana is hugely homologous to a quintessential Italian-American dish: Chicken Parmigiana, or more commonly referred to as chicken parm (“The Story Behind”). In fact, Chicken Parmigiana uses the same recipe as the Mellenzana alla Parmigiana, only substituting chicken with eggplants. Contrary to Italians whose diet was often based on fresh vegetables and seafood, those living in the U.S. preferred protein-heavy dishes, such as chicken, to light, vegetable-based meals (“The Story Behind”). Immigrant chefs began to use chicken instead to suite the American palate (“The Story Behind”). In addition, due to an increase in acceptance of Italian-Americans, these expatriates began to rise in social status. Thus, their income increased, making it possible for them to afford meats (“The Story Behind”). Also, the mild, fresh sauce used in Mellenzana alla Parmigiana was also adjusted to the thicker, American version of the sauce, as mentioned earlier. The immigrant chefs also added pasta to serve alongside these chicken dishes, possibly to share with Americans what was important in their culture. This dish is eaten and enjoyed by people all throughout the globe, often referred to as a classic American dish.

            Despite the widely modified versions of Italian cooking in the U.S., there is one thing that never changed: significance of family and food. These two things remained important to a typical Italian-American family, according to a second generation Italian-American blogger, Paul Nauta. They combined to bring out the inner Italian of these immigrants. “Nothing brings more joy in an Italian home than traditional food influenced by the old country,” Nauta mentioned in his blog. The importance of pasta and noodles in general are “a way of life that, although a family may be generations removed from the old country, still permeates every element of the family culture from generation to generation” (Nauta). Paul Nauta’s family, though citizens of the United States today, still emphasize the importance of cooking at home, so they can better connect to their roots back in mainland Italy.

            It was common for Nauta’s family to eat at home growing up. It’s not that their family did not have the money to afford food outside, but the love for cooking was handed down to Nauta’s mother by his grandmother, who, in fact, passed down her very own recipe book to all her children. Cooking was what Nauta’s mother, Anna Michelli, grew up seeing, and she continued to do the same for her children. Although Anna Michelli was a chef at a local school cafeteria, she proceeded to cook at home, never letting go of her culinary work (Nauta). To Nauta, this is what “made everyone feel like family” (Nauta). Cooking was not just limited to mothers of the family, though they became symbols of fine, homecooked meals. Everyone was taught how to cook some sort of family dish, for it was considered a “family affair” (Nauta). Together, as family members learned how to cook, they were brought together, with children learning to respect elders and adults teaching kids about the importance of Italian heritage. As Professor Christine Ristaino mentioned in lectures, it is common for Italian immigrants in the U.S. to actually spend three days to make a sauce the traditional way, whereas those living in mainland Italy often take a couple hours to make their sauce. It seems as if immigrants are able to connect with their traditions by pouring their best efforts into cooking, learning about the efforts and values that is included in a dish of pasta.

            Another vital element of Italian family is religion, specifically Catholicism. Prayer and thanksgiving start and end each meal, and every Sunday is dedicated to masses. Without Catholicism, Italians would not exist. Especially to immigrants, going to church and praying every day were important aspects to keep up, for it connected them to the roots back home. Churches formed communities, and these communities allowed Italian-Americans to share their culture and indulge in their traditions in a foreign land. These families and communities were of great importance to Italian-Americans, so many families and friends visited one another to share meals. Italian mothers often cooked more than just for their family members, according to Nauta, for there were always guests that came over to eat with them. The amount of food cooked each night was sufficient enough to feed everyone until they were full, not leaving anyone out, but welcoming visitors as family. Pasta and other dishes “brought groups of migrants together each day,” genuinely underscoring the importance of food in Italian culture (“Il Ventre di Torino”).

            Over a meal of pasta, Italian-Americans are able to connect with their roots in multiple ways. The importance of family in Italian culture was certainly emphasized when Italian-American families ate and cooked with one another, appreciating one another’s presence along the way. In addition, the value of religion is also clearly evident in noodles in subtle ways. Before and each bowl of pasta, prayer is spoken, and thanks are given. Pasta eaten away from home touches the heart and soul of each Italian-American in multifaceted ways, possibly more than any other cultures in the United States.

            Pasta is not just a simple dish without depth. Its profundity expands beyond borders and brings people together, especially Italian-Americans. Because of pasta, first Italian immigrants were able to withstand homesickness and discrimination and climb up the social ladder to where they are today. Because of pasta, Italian-Americans are able to connect with their heritage. And because of pasta, people of other cultures and origins are able to experience a glimpse of Italian culture away from Italy. Through pasta, the world is brought together, and it most certainly is an important ingredient in global peace that cannot be removed whatsoever.

Silent Love – June Sohn

Many families have unique recipes inherited from one generation to another for chicken noodle soup, carrot cakes, or exceptionally fluffy pancakes. My family boasts of a recipe even more unique: janchi gooksoo.

Janchi gooksoo literally translates to “party noodles” in Korean. Janchimeans “party” or “feast” typically centered around food, and when it’s time to celebrate a special occasion, you host a ma-eul janchi, or “a grand feast for everyone in the village”.Gooksoodirectly translates to “noodles.” Janchi gooksoo is made with a carefully stewed anchovy broth, most often served with finely chopped egg omelets, sautéed zucchinis, specially crafted sauce, pan-fried kimchi, and fine wheat noodles. My mother, raised in Seoul, inherited this recipe from my grandmother, raised in Daegu, who took a common recipe for janchi gooksoo and interpreted it her own way. Janchi gooksoo is usually eaten on special days like weddings and birthdays.

I took janchi gooksoo for granted until I left for college in 2016. Extremely homesick in a city I’ve never lived in before, I was craving homemade janchi gooksoo so I headed to a Korean restaurant in Duluth. As I took my first bite, something felt different, almost wrong. It was not the taste I was looking for, and I began to miss home even more. After the meal, I decided to make this dish myself.

Janchi gooksoo looks like a very simple dish; there’s not a lot of toppings and ingredients typically needed for this dish. I was pretty confident that I would nail this dish on my first try, for I have a huge heart for and experience with cooking. Knowing that other bowls of janchi gooksoo is nothing compared to my grandmother’s original recipe, I called her and jotted down a relatively simple set of directions along with a long list of ingredients. Many ingredients came to me as a surprise, but determined to satiate my homesick soul, I headed to one of the biggest chains of Korean markets in Georgia: H-Mart.

First, the broth. Nearly half of the ingredients on my list was for the broth alone. The most important ingredient for the broth was anchovies, but as I walked into the store, I saw thousands of different kinds of anchovies, all varying in color, size, and drying methods. My grandmother had told me to choose the big, fat anchovies silver in color, so I quickly threw a small bag of those anchovies in my cart. Then, I had to choose the right type of noodles. They had to be the thinnest kind made from flour. The biggest struggle was the soy sauce. The soy sauce had to be gook ganjangor “soup soy sauce” that was fermented and salted differently than regular soy sauce you would find in a sushi restaurant. The regular soy sauce would result in weak flavor, lacking the depth and richness of flavors that janchi gooksoo has. The dish wouldn’t be complete.

After a long stare down a long aisle of soy sauce and conversing with some of the workers there, I headed back home with what I thought was the right type of soy sauce. It was $4.99 before sales tax and dark brown just like what I was told by my grandmother.

When I finally arrived home with two hands full of groceries, I realized that I had never handled anchovies before. Brewing broth and taking care of anchovies was always a task that my mother or grandmother did for me even when I was cooking. In college, I had always gotten a pre-made pack of anchovies specifically made for making broth, so I never had to touch the tiny fish with my hands. The strong smell of the sea tickled my nose as I began to cut the anchovies’ backs to get rid of the intestines, and the crunchiness of the fish gave me goose bumps. I was already so frustrated and exhausted from cleaning out anchovies that I wanted to give up.

After bringing a pot of water to boil, I added a handful of clean anchovies, along with dried shitake mushrooms and dried shrimps. Two tablespoons of gook ganjangwas added as well.  After 50 minutes of boiling the broth on low heat, a fishy smell filled up my house. It began to smell just like my grandmother’s house, and I was hungry for janchi gooksoo.

I turned the heat off to let the broth cool and began to work on the toppings that go on the dish. I cracked four eggs, carefully separating the whites and the yolk. I stirred the separated eggs to let it become softer, and on low heat, I began to fry a thin layer of egg whites and yolk. Once fully cooked like a freshly cooked crepe, I rolled it up and sliced them very thinly. I sautéed thinly sliced zucchini on the same pan with a hint of sesame oil. Lastly, again on the same pan, I grilled some kimchi, adding sesame seeds this time. When the broth reached room temperature, I put it in the fridge to make it cold, a secret twist to the recipe my family loves.


A couple hours later, when the broth finally became cold, I boiled a pot of water again, this time to cook the noodles. The thin noodles cooked to my liking within minutes, and to keep the temperature of the dish consistent and cold, I washed the noodles under icy cold water. I get a handful of noodles and place them in a deep bowl. I included the pre-made toppings, all cold, on top of the noodles. To complete the dish, I poured the cold broth into the bowl. It is essential to add long strands of noodles without cutting them to wish the diners a long, happy life. They have to eat the entire bowl to ensure longevity enters their life.

“It smells like home,” I thought to myself. With a big smile on my face, I stared at my bowl for a couple minutes to let the rush of nostalgia run past me. I drank the broth. The cold soup chilled my bones as I decided that the janchi gooksoo is genuinely the best cold noodle soup.

The next morning, I called my grandmother and told her the story of my take on janchi gooksoo. I had done everything correctly, except the handling of anchovies. As soon as she saw a picture of my janchi gooksoo, she exclaimed, “Why are there bits of anchovies in your broth?” I supposed to take the head off of the anchovies along with the intestines, because often the eyes of the fish get in the broth, making it less aesthetically pleasant to look at. However, when I told her the name of the soy sauce that I used to make the broth, I could hear the proudness echoing in her voice.

Almost three years have gone by since the first time I made this dish. I’ve gained enough confidence to cook this dish for my friends in Atlanta. My grandmother taught me how to properly cook the broth nice and clean without anchovy bits. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t even remove the intestines, but the feast noodles still have an element of nostalgia and warmth.

The first meal I had when I came home for summer break a couple months ago was janchi gooksoo. It was a celebration of many events, including my last summer vacation as a college student. As I got ready to head home from a cold, but warm meal, my grandmother secretly slipped a piece of paper into my pocket. It had exact measurements of all the ingredients that I needed, including the brand names commonly found in Duluth’s H-Mart. She also slipped $20 into my pocket. With tears in my eyes, I just knew how exquisite my next bowl of janchi gooksoo were going to be.

The piece that I decided to imitate was “Ping A Mien, a Chinese Family Noodle Story.” I chose to use this piece of short story because of the way it was written. This story certainly felt special to me even though it was not drastically different from other pieces literature that we read for Tuesday’s class. It talked about noodles and family, a recurring theme in many of the stories that we read. However, the way it was written touched me in ways other stories did not. The author’s family also reminded me a lot of my own family. The way that the author’s mother instructed the author to make the noodles sounded very similar to my own mother. It felt casual, similar to my actual relationship with my mother and grandmother.

One of the biggest things that I learned from reading this piece is the language of love. Although I do not want to generalize this for everyone, I think families in Asia have a harder time expressing love through words. Love often times is shown through what is commonly thought of as criticism. When the author failed to choose the right type of noodles and incorrectly served the mushrooms in ping an mien, the author’s mother explicitly pointed out the authors mistakes. The author also states that she “could tell she was impressed.” This shows that the pride that Asian parents have for their children is not stated as “Oh wow, you are awesome,” but rather as “You could have done this better, but I’m still (subtly) proud of you.” The author and her mother also fought before the author left to go to the airport, and her mother brought out a warm bowl of symbolic noodles. This is a very stereotypical scene in Asian households; when parents get in an argument with their children, they try to resolve the issue by preparing them their favorite dish. Such encounter of the author’s family made me reflect on my own cultures. I soon realized that I shouldn’t be disappointed by the lack of verbal expression of love in my family but should be thankful for the small acts of kindness that my family does for me. Just like the author, I am still loved by my family.

This silent love language is embedded throughout the ping an mien piece and my piece equally. Not once did the author’s parents say “I love you” in the piece. In my short story, my grandmother and mother both do not say this phrase either. This culture of unspoken love is rather expressed through actions. The fact that the author tried to make the noodles on her own strictly following her mother’s recipe shows the love she has for her mother. The way that the mom gave the author a warm bowl of soup also depicts love. The way that my grandmother snuck a piece of an exact recipe in my pocket shows how much she loves me. She did not say, “I love you,” but the way she researched how much each ingredient costs in Atlanta shows the devoted love she has for me. Both the author and I connected with our roots through a bowl of noodles, and she and I connected over unspoken love.

An Antique Source of Love (June Sohn)

June Sohn is my full name. Like many cultures, children always follow their fathers’ last names, so I was automatically named Sohn after my father. A patriarchal society, Korea always emphasizes the importance of people’s ability to connect with their paternal ancestors. As a result, it was often easy to forget the importance of my maternal relatives. It is ultimately both my mother and father who created and raised me. The more aware I grew about this societal bias, the more I became interested in my maternal ancestry. I want to flip this notion of patriarchy and call attention to my mother and her family. To delve more into my mother’s life, I decided to use participant observation to watch my mother’s direct kinswoman: my maternal grandmother. Initially, the plan was to interview my grandmother and participate in her cooking, but because my grandmother refuses to make her grandchildren do any work at her house, I was forced to sit on the massage chair to simply observe her. It is important in studies to honor the participants’ opinions and desires, so I complied without hesitation. Though limited in direct experience, participant observation allows for objective watching of details that might be missed when actually involved in the cooking process. I was able to observe everyday tasks, the key element of participation observation as mentioned in Eating Culture by Gillian Crowther. This allowed for not only visual observations, but also the “feel, smell, and taste, of food that is essential” (Crowther, 21). Through this practice, I was able to truly understand the culture of my mother, and ultimately myself.

There’s a table that I’ve grown up with at my grandmother’s house. It is dark-chocolate brown with hints of light bread-like color intertwined throughout. The four legs that hold the table up stand tall, curved like a windy day’s wave. The tabletop is shiny with not a fingerprint to be seen, and the surface is icy cold. It’s large enough to sit six people, one seat more than the number of people in my mother’s family. I have eaten at this table since I was born, and I have always seen it in pictures of my mother when she was a child. It seems too clean to be an antique, but this table has an extensive history that can perhaps teach me about my maternal family. In fact, this table was the first piece of furniture that my grandmother purchased after building her own house in the 70’s, even before my mother was born. It has endured through the happiest days and through the darkest moments. It’s also quite unique in how it’s used. It is not solely used for eating; it’s a place to organize medicine and vitamins, a spot for spontaneous study sessions, and even an area for cooking.

When I asked my grandmother to cook for me so I could observe her, she happened to be using this table to cook. She was planning to make me some Songpyeon, a rice cake dish that closely resembles a dumpling but is made of glutinous rice instead of flour and sugar and sesame instead of meat fillings. All the objects that were placed atop the table, including medicine, vitamins, and even bags, were put on the ground to make room for the dough. A handful of flour was spread across the glossy table as my grandmother began rolling out the dough. She rolled and cut the dough so quickly that it was difficult to locate her hands. She then immediately put some sesame-sugar mixture into the center of the dough, swiftly closed it up, and tightly sealed the Songpyeon. The same process was repeated for around 50 minutes and around 100 little Songpyeons were made. My grandma then placed them into a steamer, where she cooked the Songpyeon with a hint of pine leaves. As the rice cake was cooking, my grandmother busily began to dust all flour off the table and wiped it down with a tablecloth. She placed two green table mats on top of the newly cleaned table. After 30 minutes, she took the Songpyeon out, placed them into pretty bowls, and gathered all my relatives around the table. The 12 of us congregated around the table, with some standing and others sitting. Everyone devoured the Songpyeon, feeding those sitting next to us. Our grandma constantly brought more Songpyeon out, until everyone complained of full stomach. The complaint did not stop her; she insisted on “one more bite” until everyone screamed, “STOP!”

This experience made it clear where my mother’s sacrificial love sprouted from. This love was what nurtured me and shaped me into who I am today. It arose from the concept of “jung” that developed around the kitchen table. “Jung” is a word that has no direct translation in English. It is a notion of love, sacrifice, warmth, and friendship all mixed into one feeling. When someone feeds you too much, it’s often out of “jung.” When someone gives you all they have, it is also because of “jung.” This day when everyone crowded around an old but important table is when I saw more deeply into my mom’s, and therefore my grandmother’s, heart. There was a reason the table was kept for so long. It’s like a fuel that kindles a sense of “jung” like no other. It’s what shaped my mom. It’s what shaped me.

June Sohn Post #1: Tteokguk

One of the most important dishes in my family is called tteokguk. Tteokguk literally translates to rice cake soup, and it not only is an important dish in our family, but it also symbolizes South Korean culture in various ways. To me, Tteokguk is a dish so important to me that it is one of foods that I crave whenever I am homesick. Though there are many variations of this dish, my favorite is my mom’s style: simple, yet so rich in flavor. Always being the first meal my mom cooks for me when I come home for break, Tteokguk brings about feelings of nostalgia and bliss. As I take a mouthful of Tteokguk, I am taken down the memory lane of my four tough years in high school. As an athlete, I was always out the doors by 6 a.m. to go to morning practices. Especially during the cold winters of Seoul, which can get as low as 10 °F, practice sessions were hard to endure. My mom, a typical Korean mother who is always concerned whether or not her child is getting enough food, would always cook me a hot bowl of Tteokguk. “Hot soup and some rice cake will make you feel warmer on the field,” my mom would always tell me. Though sleepy without appetite, I would always finish the entire bowl to see my mom proudly smile, a sign of relief that her child was well-fed. To my surprise, on the days I ate Tteoguk for breakfast, I felt warmer, due to the warmth of the soup or perhaps the warmth of my mom’s heart. The warmth still prevails in my heart and mind, intensifying whenever I eat Tteokguk.

Tteokguk is symbolic of South Korean culture as well. Though it can be eaten at any time of the year, this dish is generally consumed on New Year’s Day. Interestingly, Korea has its own way of counting ages; a baby is considered a year old the moment it is born. And from that point, every year, on New Year’s Day, a person turns a year older, despite it not being their birthday yet. For example, a person born in August 2019 would turn 2 years old on January 1st, 2020. It is said that a person turns a year older if they consume a bowl of Tteokguk on New Year’s Day. In the 19th century, people commonly asked, “How many Tteokguks did you eat?” to ask for a person’s age. It is believed that Tteokguk was first introduced as a dish for New Years because the ingredients symbolize various things. The rice cake that is put into the bowl is originally a long piece of rice cake, almost like a long sausage. This long piece of rice cake represents longevity. The rice cake is cut into pieces to prepare Tteokguk, and it is cut up into circular pieces that almost look like coins. With an abundance of these circular rice cakes in the bowl of Tteokguk, a spirit of wealth and good fortune is thought to follow the person.

Tteokguk was first cooked with beef to make the soup, but since its invention, variations in cooking methods have formed. This difference in preparation methods is important to my family as a whole, for it shows the different roots and origins of where my mom and dad came from. My paternal grandparents are from an area called Masan located near the Southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Located near many ports, Masan is known for its seafood. Having grown up in this area, my paternal grandmother always incorporated seafood into her cooking. Her style of Tteokguk is made from anchovy broth, which has a crisp, refreshing taste much lighter than beef broth. My maternal grandparents are from a city called Daegu, which is located in the south away from the ocean. Seafood is less commonly used in this region, so my maternal grandmother uses beef broth to make Tteokguk. Her broth is very intense and resonating in flavor, for it is cooked on low heat for 5-6 hours. Both styles of Tteokguk represent where my roots lie, which is quite often forgotten when living in the United States. Though it may not be my ultimate favorite dish, Tteokguk is a dish that not only satisfies my taste buds, but it also reminds me of my frequently overlooked ancestry. It’s a dish for both the mouth and the soul.

This is my maternal grandparents with my mom and dad. It was taken when we went out to eat Tteokguk!

This picture was taken from https://www.maangchi.com/photo/tteokguk-4. This is the beef broth version of the dish.


Recipe (beef broth, my mom’s style)


  • 500g of cut up rice cake
  • 300g beef brisket cut into cubes
  • 500 mL of water
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce (special type called guk ganjang used for soups)
  • Seaweed (optional)


  • Soak 500g of rice cake in lukewarm water.
  • In a pot, put 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and stir fry 300g of beef brisket on medium high heat until no red parts remain.
  • When the beef is cooked, put 500 mL of water right into the pot.
  • On medium heat, bring the water to boil.
  • When it begins to boil, add about 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. (More if you would like)
  • Put the pre-soaked rice cake into the boiling broth and cook until the rice cake becomes soft and chewy.
  • Serve hot in a bowl. Garnish with cut-up seaweed if desired.