For some, flower snack marks springtimeThe third day of the third lunar month, which falls today, was traditionally the day to celebrate spring’s arrival by going outdoors to enjoy the first blossoms, to have picnics and to make hwajeon. These are small flour pancakes with flower petals fried onto their surface.
“We’re bound to find people who remember hwajeon nori if we head deep into the mountains outside Seoul on Samwol Samjin Nal,” said Kim Sung-ja.
On this date known as Samwol Samjin Nal, the purplish pink wild azaleas ― not to be confused with other azalea varieties, which are poisonous ― are picked, as they are blooming all over right now. But amid the affluence of modern Korea it is easy to forget that until lately many of the traditional celebrations punctuating the year were beyond average people’s means.
“Wild azalea pancakes? Never heard of them,” replied a 95-year old grandmother, warming herself on the floor of her small home in a mountain village. “Anyway, sticky rice was very expensive. We only had it on New Year’s and Chuseok [Korean Thanksgiving].”
Better luck next time, we thought, approaching a friendly crone doing what appeared to city eyes to be weeding an empty field.
“Picnics?” she exclaimed. “We were too busy working!” She hacked at the air energetically with her short hoe, and cackled, displaying her one remaining tooth like an ornament. We inquired about the scraggly contents of her basket. “Field vegetables, to sell in the market tomorrow.”
“What for?” we asked. She looked at us quizzically. “For stews, of course!....and side dishes.” In grandma’s memory, lunar March does not signify blossoming flowers so much as food shortages, when the last harvest’s food was consumed, but the new barley was not yet ready.
An 82-year old woman from White Crane Village was luckier.
“Yes, if the azaleas were out, we made hwajeon....No, we weren’t rich, but we did have a lot of land....When the flowers opened we’d grind some sticky rice powder, and wash the azalea flowers carefully. But we didn’t cook them at home. We used to climb up the mountain to a spring....where it was clean...and make the pancakes there. My grandmother used to take us children. I remember lots of cherry trees on the way to the spring. Sometimes, there were so many blossoms it felt like walking through a tunnel, and the mountainside would be green with chingneongkul [a climbing plant]. Then you came to the rocks where the water came up. That’s where we used to sit. There were no portable gas rings in those days, so we’d gather branches and build a fire in a circle of stones. There were no frying pans either, so we’d fry the pancakes in the upturned lid of one of the small cooking pots from home. Grandmother would always offer the first pancake to the water. After that she cooked them for us. We kept her so busy! We’d eat them faster than she could cook them! I don’t know whether Grandmother went there mainly to pray, or for the picnic. We just went to eat and have fun. We had such a good time!”
So if you are offered “traditional Korean flower pancakes” today, it is worth remembering they were traditional only for a few.
by Helena Partridge with Kim Sung-ja