Although I’ve missed a couple of Thanksgivings with my family, and I could probably get away with skipping a Christmas or two, my presence at my uncle’s house in New Jersey on New Year’s Day is non-negotiable. There’s no reasonable excuse I can give to miss it, not even that I’m hungover. But, really, what family in their right mind holds their most important celebration on January 1, the day that a vast majority of people in the United States, if not the world, are also hungover, lazing about in bed, ordering take-out from the diner around the corner, and watching reruns of Gilmore Girls on Netflix?
My Korean family, that’s who. And unlike those lucky ducks who have nothing to do and nowhere to be on New Year’s Day, I have to be up and in New Jersey before lunch, alongside the rest of my family, ready to partake in the semi-formal festivities, no matter how much my head is spinning, my stomach is churning, or my body is aching. That’s because New Year’s Day in Korean culture is arguably one of the biggest holidays of the year, maybe only outshined by Chuseok, the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. New Year’s is traditionally celebrated on the lunar calendar, but the Lee family celebrates it on January 1, hangovers be damned.
I know that this family obligation is coming every single year, and even though I never think I’ll be hungover, I always am. I’ve at least learned to set an alarm before I start drinking on New Year’s Eve, but until I get to my uncle’s house, I’m in panic mode. Or, at least, as much of a panic I can be in while I’m also trying not to vomit while I make my way across the George Washington Bridge.
The second I walk through my uncle’s front door, though, things take on the same, specific structure that I’ve been subject to since my birth—the same one that my mother and her brothers have been following for decades before that. It’s ritual, and when I’m so hungover that it’s taking all of my strength to stay upright, the ability to fall into a familiar routine can feel like a godsend.
The centerpiece of New Year’s Day is a formal ceremony, called saebae in Korean. The entire family lines up, from the oldest member to the youngest, and bows to our elders. First to our grandparents, who bless us and say what can best be described as a Korean prayer, then to our aunts and uncles and parents. The older generation gives the younger generation (read: me) envelopes full of money, or saebaetdon, as a sign of the fresh start to a hopefully prosperous year. The money is much appreciated and usually much needed, and as good a reason as any to drag myself to New Jersey, despite the prevailing desire for sleep.
But saebae isn’t officially over until the food comes out, specifically dduk-guk. Dduk literally means “rice cake” and guk is the Korean word for soup. Although that sounds simple, this is one of those instances where the sum is so much greater than the individual parts.
There’s the traditional significance of dduk-guk, of course. It’s what Koreans have eaten on New Year’s Day for centuries, probably because someone from the Tang Dynasty or whenever decided that the white rice cakes looked like full moons or coins, and that could be read as a sign of prosperity and purity, perfect for the New Year. According to tradition, you’re not officially a year older, and hopefully a year wiser, until you’ve had a bowl of the stuff.
But I also like to think that ancestor had a hungover little brother who had the foresight and wisdom to know that centuries later, their descendants would also be raging idiots who drank too much booze and needed sustenance to get them through the rigamarole of saebae. Because dduk-guk is the perfect hangover cure, even if that’s not the stated purpose.
Let’s start with the actual soup, which, when made properly, as it is in my family’s kitchens, is simple but rich. It’s basically just beef and garlic that’s been cooked down in water for hours, which means that the broth isn’t too hard on a queasy stomach. The rice cakes are soft yet chewy, almost like a bagel, with a hint of sweetness that plays off the salty broth nicely. Those two elements alone are enough to make a meal, and with one sip of broth and one bit of rice cake, I start to remember what life was like when I wasn’t hungover.
But then there are all the fixings: mandu, or dumplings; shredded beef; thin slices of egg omelet; and lots and lots of kim, or seaweed layered on top, for some extra salt, which is especially helpful when you know you’re dehydrated AF. This is where the actual hangover salvation can be found. It’s a veritable dogpile of Korean toppings on top of this deliciously sweet and salty soup foundation, and I can never eat enough. I also drop in a couple pieces of kimchi because I’m Korean, and adding kimchi to all dishes is as much my birthright as a traditional New Year’s Day celebration.
Once I slurp up the last of the dduk-guk, I’m finally relieved of my familial obligations for the day and can lie on the couch until it’s time to go home. My hangover might not be cured, but at least I can rest easy in knowing that it will be eventually, same as every other year.