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Make This Jeon Recipe to Celebrate Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival – Tricks and Tips

Make This Jeon Recipe to Celebrate Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival

I’m still sad about the fact that I didn’t grow up celebrating Chuseok. For Koreans, Chuseok, our Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival that falls on September 10 this year, is one of the biggest national holidays, marked by family gatherings (and the horrific traffic jams that clog Korean highways as the entire country seems to hit the road), ancestral tributes, and massive amounts of feasting. But I didn’t know any of that as a Korean-American kid in Virginia and Florida.

It was only when I moved to Seoul post-college that I got to celebrate Chuseok in my own way. But as the child of Korean immigrants to the United States, my celebrations looked a little different. I never had to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic to one of my parents’ hometowns, nor did the women in my family have to toil endlessly in the kitchen—drudgery that the holiday still unfortunately entails for many.

Instead, I took the practically empty Seoul subway to visit an aunt for a cozy, mostly store-bought feast over a low table stacked with the dishes I now recognize as Chuseok classics: a colorful array of jeon, savory fritters that Koreans make from any number of vegetables and protein; songpyeon, a chewy, glutinous rice cake stuffed with sweet red bean, chestnuts, sesame seeds, and other fillings; and the usual kimchi and steaming bowls of rice and soup.

Chef Ji Hye Kim, owner of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based restaurant Miss Kim, knows something about improvised, atypical Chuseok celebrations herself.

“Chuseok used to be a village-wide celebration, with food shared between neighbors who would all come out for ganggangsullae,” she says, referring to a traditional Korean dance that women perform in a large circle under the full harvest moon. “There was always a lot of food, with days of prep and hours of cooking”—and lots of hands to pitch in with labor.

But Ann Arbor is a long way from the idyllic Korean countryside, so Kim (who grew up in an urban apartment complex in bustling Seoul) makes her restaurant the Chuseok hub for her community when the holiday hits.

“Before the pandemic, we’d have family-style feasts with huge platters of Chuseok food,” says Kim, explaining that her restaurant has adapted since then by offering ready-to-eat meals for at-home diners and adding holiday specialties like torantang (a savory, nutty taro soup) to the menu. For this year’s Chuseok, she even taught a recent cooking class online for New York’s 92nd Street Y featuring dishes like neobiani—a luxurious, thick cut of beef. “It’s what moms make, not the kind of thing you’d get at a restaurant,” she recalls fondly.

In her off hours, Kim prefers to invite a friend over for a “mini-Chuseok celebration” to share the holiday over freshly fried jeon that incorporates the bounty of Michigan’s seasonal produce—from chestnut mushrooms to celery leaves to varieties of summer squash.

“I feel great about making jeon, a dish that’s so much about celebration, for just the two of us,” she says. “I like taking the care to make every single bite of jeon delicious.” And for the record, Kim has no problem with families that opt to serve store-bought songpyeon rice cakes for dessert, especially when frying up jeon à la minute.

Frying each jeon to order and eating it piping hot reminds Kim of her family’s Chuseok celebrations back in South Korea when she was a child. In Kim’s family, as in many Korean households, the women would spend an entire day frying huge batches of jeon for the multiple days of Chuseok, which they’d store in a basket then reheat at mealtime. “But I always liked them right off the pan,” Kim says with a mischievous smile, “so I’d linger to try and get the hottest ones.”

The savory fritters come in endless forms, and lend themselves well to improvising. Growing up, Kim’s Chuseok favorites included sanjeok jeon, which layers finger-length strips of beef and vegetables on skewers; saengseon jeon, battered whitefish slices; and hobak jeon, battered slices of aehobak, a Korean variety of summer squash similar to zucchini.

She shares her hobak jeon recipe, which she loves to adapt for different types of summer squash that are in season in Ann Arbor near Chuseok. “Small patty pan squash is fun, because when you cut it in half, it looks like a little UFO, and in the Michigan farmers’ markets, I look for smaller zucchini, which tend to have fewer seeds and less water,” Kim explains.

When cooking for yourself or just one other diner, as Kim does during the holiday, she recommends eating hobak jeon right off the pan before the squash slices have a chance to turn soggy from their natural water content. But if you’re cooking for a larger group, Kim’s tip is to salt the squash slices in advance to draw out water, which she lightly dabs off before dredging and frying the jeon. It’s all about achieving that perfect lightness from expertly fried egg batter and tender, delicately flavored squash.

Kim credits her mother, who considered herself the best cook in the family, with honing her palate, although the matriarch guarded her own recipes fiercely.

“What she taught me was tradition, what actually tastes good,” Kim notes. “What I learned from her was the clean taste of homemade food.”