“Glutinous rice is mixed with oil and honey, pine nuts and dates. Families in the neighborhood share bowls of this rice with each other as the magpie awakes, seduced by the clear crisp down [dawn?].” ~ Book 13 of Mogeunjip, by Yi Saek of Goryeo (1328-1396)
The word about the importance of healthy eating habits is out, and by now we all have made the necessary adjustments to our diet, think we eat healthy, or aspire to do so. According to statistics the demand for organic food is expanding. Over 81% of the respondents in a recent online survey consider themselves to be foodies.
Yet, there are over 200,000 fast food restaurants in the United States and it is estimated that 50 million Americans visit them daily. Consumers of fast food focus on taste, price, and quality – in that order. Microwaves are still used extensively. The global packaged food market is expected to grow 4.5% annually from 2015 to 2020. The time we spend in the kitchen cooking is on an all-time decline. Eating disorders are on an all-time rise, hand-in-hand with all the chronic maladies.
As if the hurried, mindless way in which we buy, prepare, and eat our meals gives us less time to notice the damage we are actually inflicting on ourselves.
The present boom in food-related media from cookbooks and magazines to a bursting plethora of TV shows, websites, blogs, Youtube videos, and social media posts seems like a paradox; but actually it is a well-orchestrated marketing campaign for an ever-growing number of products and ever-changing food industry trends in need of consumers. Our attraction to it is indicative of the deeper craving we all have buried deep inside for delicious, comforting, healthy, home-cooked, from-scratch goodness. Fancy photographs and chefs creating meals on our electronic devices’ screens are the culinary dream we long to be our reality, which, as many of our personal relationships, has been cyber-ized. So the reality actually is that for most part we allow corporations to cook for us. As per Michael Pollan, “The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.” The acronym of Standard American Diet is not just a mere coincidence.
If this is happening every day in North America, how about the holidays? What is it going to be: boxed potato flakes to make the mash and frozen green beans microwave style or roasted antibiotic-laden and chemical-plumped turkey with all the trimmings from the local supermarket? So convenient. Why bother spending a day in the kitchen? Who’s going to bring the salad? Costco of course, pre-washed in heavily chlorinated brine or in the case of the ‘baby’ carrots, soaked in it. Dessert? There are plenty of sugar-loaded choices where the rest of the dinner came from.
We have become masters in justifying our poor food choices and convincing ourselves of how “delicious” (since our palates have been educated by food corporations) and “healthy” (since we take our nutritional advice from the media) we are eating.
I grew up on my grandmother’s home-cooked and baked eclectic cuisine. All of my friends loved to drop by after school, since there was always a sizzling sound coming from the oven or a bubbling from the stove top paired with a heavenly aroma that naturally incited deep breathing and inevitably increased salivation. Our condiments, preserves, and canned or pickled vegetables were also home-made. So were all our desserts and some of the bread we ate. My grandma roasted to perfection even her coffee beans. Our kitchen was truly the heart of the house and a place that neighbors and family friends enjoyed visiting daily. Most of the second-hand life lessons I learned there, sitting and listening to all their stories. Those are not only fond memories, but also a healthy lifestyle I emulate and continuously enjoy a version of up until now.
Since the local farmers’ market is my main source of produce, I cook with the seasons. This, by itself, is a celebration of the diverse colors, scents, and tastes that every stage of the Earth’s dance around the Sun brings to us. Although I have lived in different big cities and urban areas, at home we always acknowledge orange, cherry, fresh garlic, peach, melon, chestnut, pumpkin, and pickle seasons, leaving no space for Big Pharma and media imposed “cold and flu seasons.” Apparently, my grandmother’s food nourished the eclectic in me, and world cuisine is on the menu at home in all its glory.
All this, combined with my love for Korean culture, food, and people, led me to try making, on the day of the first full moon of the new lunar year, the socalled Great Full Moon (정월대보름) [Jeongwol Daeboreum], a sweet dish called Yakbap (약밥) or Yaksik (약식), literally meaning ‘medicinal rice/food’, traditionally cooked and eaten on that day in Korea since the 5th century CE. It turned out to be a meditative and memorable experience I would like to share.
Every single one of the multiple ingredients in this dish has healing properties, not just the honey and the optional addition of molasses used as sweeteners, whose health benefits would take pages to list.
Originally in one of Yaksik’s creation legends the rice was of a black kind. Not surprising, since dark-colored foods are considered by traditional medicine to be very good for the kidneys, which need nourishing during the winter. Black rice was (and still is) a rare and more expensive commodity, so a white glutinous variety has been used ever since; being very gentle on the digestive tract it allows the immune system to work at its optimum, and it provides minerals, complex carbohydrates, and eight essential amino acids.
Dried jujubes (a.k.a. Korean/Chinese dates) are well known historically for their health benefits as blood purifiers, neural system tonics, protectors of the liver and energy enhancers in case of exhaustion. Jujubes improve the body’s defense mechanisms; have anti-carcinogenic qualities; and serve as treatment for numerous skin conditions, anxiety, and insomnia.
Chestnuts are enjoyed for their unique flavor around the world and are praised for their wealth of important nutrients: non-soluble dietary fiber; iron, zinc, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium; plenty of vitamin A, B, and C; and mono-unsaturated fat. Since chestnuts are high in complex carbohydrates, they provide stable energy levels and have a low glycemic index.
Pine nuts, which are actually the seeds of pine trees, have been considered a delicacy since ancient times, and lend not only their tasty flavor to the dish, but also numerous health benefits. Pine nuts contain magnesium; manganese; and antioxidants like vitamins A, B, C, D, and especially E and K. They are not only a good source of protein and mono-unsaturated fat, but also have the specific fatty pinolenic acid, which has been proven in studies to be able to suppress appetite, assisting in weight loss. Pine nuts contain plenty of lutein, thus making them very beneficial to our eye health.
Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as alpha linolenic acid, fiber, protein, selenium, zinc, biotin, and also bio-available melatonin. They assist in weight management, gallstone and cancer prevention, brain health, good digestion, strong bones, healthy hair, and better sleep.
Because of their rich mineral content, raisins are good for our eyes, bones, skin, hair, even teeth; help against anemia and sexual weakness; treat infections and inflammation; and have been successfully used in studies for colorectal cancer prevention.
Cinnamon has many health benefits used in the treatment of diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol, memory function, and even leukemia and lymphoma. Both raisins and cinnamon are optional ingredients for Yakbap, but are worth noting and adding.
Sesame seed oil is, per ounce, one of the richest sources of protein and calcium. It is non-rancid and promotes healthy, beautiful skin; boosts oral health; reduces blood pressure; protects against DNA damage from radiation; protects against cancer; boosts bone health; helps prevent diabetes; and promotes digestive and respiratory health.
Because of its rich taste, the use of soy sauce rather than table salt helps lower sodium consumption. Studies have shown that it has anti-allergenic properties, produced during its fermentation process. Since it contains shoyuflavones and antioxidants, it helps to reduce inflammation and improve digestion.
It began with supplying the ingredients. The novelty for me was the use of jujubes. Right when I was going to give up hope of finding them in all local stores, a friend invited me over for a cup of tea. Next to a plate of biscuits, she offered a bowl of jujubes with the explanation that a colleague of her husband brought them as a gift from China and they have no idea how to eat them. Needless to say, I came back home smiling, feeling Mago’s blessing, and holding a bag of jujubes.
The next stage was to wash the rice and soak it overnight. The swishing of the cool water in a bowl and the gliding of the rice between my fingers, done with care and gratitude, was almost sensual and awakened my inner smile. I was thinking about all the people and effort it took for those grains to be in my hands…
The pause between this and the next step gave me time to reflect and prepare my mind, which is as important an ingredient as all of the aforementioned. Cooking is an alchemical process of transformation and extraction of the essence of each and every product used. Depending on the mindset of the chef, the food could either heal or harm, despite all its potential health benefits. This was my time to set intentions for good health and fortune, as well as all the other blessings my family and I wanted to harvest later in the year, since the day of the Jeongwol Daeboreum is considered the first day of the farming year.
The use of the jujubes in the recipe was in itself a delicate process. With a small sharp knife, starting from one end I cut around the skin and the flesh, as if peeling an apple. Mindfulness in action. If one’s attention slips, either the piece would be broken or a finger would be wounded. After, the curls are gently but firmly folded and rolled, then sliced so each and every piece becomes a beautiful little spiral – a reminder of Mother Nature’s affinity to this shape and our own galaxy.
The core with the seeds was cooked into a tea. The soy sauce, sesame oil, sweeteners, a couple of pinches of salt, and cinnamon I added to the tea and mixed thoroughly. Thus, a dark brown sauce was created. It is believed that brown color stimulates appetite – probably because of its association with earth, wood, warmth, home, wholesomeness, reliability, security, honesty…
At the bottom of a rice cooker (contemporary convenience) I placed the pre-soaked rice, followed by all the cut nuts and the raisins. The sauce was poured on top. Cooking it all blended the tastes. Even after it was cooked, the Yaksik needed to rest in the cooker for 5 minutes. The steam from the rice cooker reminded me of the traditional fires burned on the Daeboreum, whose smoke is supposed to spread the message of hope for peace, health, and prosperity far and wide. Would the steam carry my prayers to their fulfillment?
After all the liquid was absorbed and the cooker opened, Yakbap needed to be gently flipped with a spatula and transferred into a glass container and then decorated with some of the jujube spirals and more of the pine nuts. Little bowls could be used instead or it could be rolled into balls. We started eating it right after it cooled down. Some advice: wait until the next day, when the texture is best – soft, but chewy. Patience was still a lesson we needed to learn.
Yaksik is the epitome of some of the distinct Korean cuisine principles. The careful selection and use of ingredients in every dish, prepped and combined into a symphony of flavors, textures, shapes, colors, and beneficial health properties. The notable eco-friendly efficiency, where nothing goes to waste. The amount of time, effort, and heartfelt consideration convert into a very satiating experience, even if it is consumed in small quantities. The final product is a joy to look at, as well as to savor. It also carries the blessings of the many generations who have cooked, eaten, and celebrated with it throughout the centuries.
The legend about Yakbap told most often, partially documented in historical records, connects it with the reign of Silla’s King Soji (479-99 CE) and a bird, often a crow (but sometimes a magpie), able to not only draw the king’s attention but also to lead him to an old man, who gave him a riddling instruction of what needed to be done in order to prevent his own assassination. In celebration of the bird, a special rice dish was created, which throughout the centuries evolved into the dish enjoyed on the Day of the Great Full Moon – one of the three major full moon festivals celebrated in Korea until today.
I relate more to another, more intimate, family story of its origin. Four hundred and fifty years ago a 21-year-old blind widow, whose little boy was so smart that the king invited him to the palace to continue his studies with the royal scholars, had to provide for the boy’s education. Her handicap and low social status did not stop the woman. She decided to sell homemade food and created Yaksik. People loved its taste and the fact that it is packed with nutrients, so even a small piece can be carried and be enough to satisfy one’s hunger.
Whether we trust only written records that have survived through time or are willing to believe oral accounts passed on through generations, one cannot deny that there is something very special about Yakbap. It is a food that one does not prepare on a whim, but with a clear intention. It is a considered process, following a particular rhythm of simple steps, either of mindful action or contemplative pause, like the ritual every celebration is entitled to. Attention and gentleness are required, as well as beauty in the execution. Its medicinal properties go way beyond its healthy ingredients. The end result brought profound joy and contentment to me. It made me want to write about it. After all, Yaksik was a dish meant to be shared.
I hope my detailed account won’t deter you, but inspire you to prepare it. Courage is in its origin. Your experience might be different than mine but I guarantee that, if nothing else, the ready Yakbap will delight you. Give it a try on the next full moon and enjoy the magic of its healing powers!
 Franchise Help, Fast Food Industry Analysis 2016 – Cost & Trends, https://www.franchisehelp.com/industry-reports/fast-food-industry-report/
 Hartman, Lauren R., Product Development Editor, Global Packaged Food Market by 2020 will be a $3.03-Trillion Industry, Food Processing, Industry News, September 2, 2015.
 Pollan, Michael, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, New York Times, July 29, 2009.
 Suh, JinJoo, Story of Two Korean Sweets – Yakwa (약과) and Yakshik (약식), Kimchimari: Authentic Korean Recipes Even You Can Cook, Internet blog post, March 3, 2011.