Winter Solstice traditions around the world include (L–R) patjuk bean soup, lussekatt buns and ash soup.
(Selina S. Lee/Birgitta Holma Durell/Azita Mehran)
Winter Solstice festivities to celebrate the longest night of the year are an ancient ritual that can be traced back to the Stone Age. The auspicious day falls between the 20–23 of December (or June, in the Southern Hemisphere). Cultures including the Ancient Romans, the Incas and the Hopi Indians have employed dancing and fires to chase away any malevolent spirits lurking around during the long, cold dark night—and special foods are an essential element of every revelry.
Below are three different traditions, complete with recipes, celebrated around the world during the Winter Solstice.
The deep red hue of the Korean bean soup, patjuk, that is eaten on Dongji (the winter solstice) is believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits and, traditionally, was sprinkled around the house to chase them away.
Having grown up in Seoul, Selina S. Lee, an Oakland restaurant consultant for new Korean restaurants, doesn’t remember her mother making a big deal out of Dongji, but she always made patjuk. Lee contrasts life in modern Seoul to the surrounding villages, where she suspects that Dongji is celebrated more widely, especially among the older generation.
“My mom made the red bean soup every year,” says Lee, “but I had no idea it was for the winter solstice. She didn’t tell me we are eating it for the beginning of winter. Now I know. I don’t really celebrate Dongji, but I want my kids to know it.” Lee now has two boys, age 14 and 12, and makes patjuk every year.
“I have figured out an easier way,” says the recipe developer, “because the traditional method takes a lot of time. First you have to wash, soak the beans, make sure there are no bad ones, then you are supposed to boil them several times and strain it by hand so that all the skin gets separated. I love that kind of cooking, slow rather than fast and easy. But a couple of years ago, looking online for different recipes, I found that people were just blending the beans in the food processor and eating the skin as well. There was something nutritional about the skin. Actually, it turns out smoother and silkier.
“My kids aren’t the biggest fans,” Lee admits, “but it reminds me when I was little, and my mother gave me patjuk with just some salt and I didn’t like it much. Then I realized you could make it with sugar, more like a dessert.”
Besides red beans, an essential ingredient of patjuk are little rice balls, which symbolize birds’ eggs and new life. “You are supposed to eat the number of rice balls that equals your age. But you really can’t after you reach a certain age,” says Lee, laughing. “You can’t eat 40 rice balls.”
Adds Lee: “I would love to make this into my own tradition now and share stories with my followers, especially Korean-Americans, if they were born here, I’m sure they have had no exposure to it.”
Red Bean Porridge (동지팥죽, Dongji Patjuk)
Makes 4-6 servings
By Selina S. Lee
2 cups red beans (a.k.a. azuki beans)
½ cup sweet rice flour (a.k.a. mochiko rice flour)
Pine nuts - optional
· Wash your beans in cold water and soak them for about 30 minutes. You can pick out broken beans.
· In a large pot, add clean beans to 3 cups of water and bring it to a boil on medium-high heat. Drain the water out after the first boil, and put the beans back in the pot with 4 cups of new water. Boil on medium-low heat for 1 hour with the lid on. Stir the beans a few times to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Lower the heat if necessary.
· While the beans are cooking, you can make your sweet rice balls (called ‘sae al shim’) by making a dough with ½ cup sweet rice flour, 2 tsp sugar, ¼ tsp salt and ¼ cup of hot boiling water. Add the hot water a little bit at a time and mix and fold/knead gently with your fingers (when it’s not piping hot!) into a long 1-inch-thick dough log. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
· Roll out your dough with your hand until it becomes 8-10 inches long, then cut it evenly into pieces to mold into small round balls using the palm of your hand. I like to keep them at about ½ inch size. Cover your rice balls so they don’t get dried out.
· After about 1 hour of boiling, the beans should be soft and mashable. Drain, wait until they cool down a little, then add the beans to the blender with about ¼ cup of water until it’s a smooth, silky texture. I do this in 2 batches. You can add more water if needed. It will be a little grainy at first because of the skin, but will smooth out when you cook it. You can store this mixture in your freezer for later use.
· Add blended red beans and sweet rice balls to your pot and bring them to a boil by adding a little bit more water (about ¼ cup), sugar (1 tsp) and salt (pinch). Keep stirring for about 10-15 minutes until achieving desired consistency. I like mine a little bit more runny than a thick porridge.
· Serve with some pine nuts, salt or sugar on the side. I prefer to eat it with salt first, then eat a second bowl with some sugar.
St. Lucia’s Day (Swedish Culture)
Instead of soup, Swedes hunger for warm, saffron-scented buns on the cold, dark morning of St. Lucia’s Day. The Swedish holiday features a procession of singing children dressed in white gowns, led by the appointed “St. Lucia,” who wears a crown of lit candles (or nowadays, a safer battery-powered version).
Berkeley resident Birgitta Holma Durell, who grew up in a small city in Southern Sweden, remembers the ritual fondly. “My sister and brother and I would get up early in the morning. My mother had already baked the Lucia rolls, which we warmed up in the oven. Then we made coffee for my parents. We would put on our white gowns, and my brother would wear the cone shaped hat with stars on it. Because I had blond hair, I got to wear the crown and we walked upstairs to my parents’ bedroom, singing the Lucia songs and bringing them coffee and Lucia rolls. I liked that we kids did something for our parents.”
The co-founder of Berkeley-based Cult Crackers (which are inspired by Swedish crispbread) explains that after the morning ritual, another procession commenced at school, and often one at church. The choir would sing away the gloom and darkness and hasten rosy skies. “One girl was picked to be Lucia with candles on her head and a red band around her waist,” says Durell. “The rest of us would have glitter in our hair and around our waist. Then everybody would eat Lucia rolls and gingerbread cookies with tea or cocoa.”
Although St. Lucia’s Day celebrates the return of the light, Swedes celebrate it on Dec. 13 (not the 21st) because when Sweden followed the old Julian calendar, that was the date of the winter solstice. In the early 18th century, the country switched to the Gregorian calendar, but kept their traditional celebration on the 13th.
Santa Lucia was a Sicilian saint. Her name means “carrier of light.” Legend has it that Lucia secretly brought food to persecuted Christians who hid in catacombs beneath Rome. She wore candles on her head in order to keep her hands free to carry more food. She died a martyr in 304, and her Saint day is Dec. 13.
The traditional Swedish rolls, called Lussekatt (Lucia cat), are only eaten in December. Their curled-up shape represents a sleeping cat (an animal believed to be the devil in disguise). To keep the devil away, the sweet buns are colored a cheery yellow with the precious spice saffron, and adorned with two raisins to represent the cat’s eyes.
Lussekatt (Lucia’s cat) Buns
By Birgitta Holma Durell
2 teaspoons dry active yeast
¾ cup butter
2 cups of milk
½ teaspoon saffron threads
½ cup natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6½ cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup of raisins
· Put the saffron threads in a mortar with a spoonful of the sugar, and crush the saffron with the sugar.
· Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the saffron/sugar mixture.
· Add the milk to the butter and saffron/sugar. Heat until about 110° F.
· In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 4 tbsps of the warm milk mixture and set aside for a few minutes until small bubbles form.
· In a large bowl, whisk 1 egg and blend in the rest of the sugar, the salt, and then the saffron/milk mixture. Stir until well blended.
· Slowly add the flour to the liquid. Mix with a wooden spoon until you can make a ball out of the dough.
· Knead the dough until smooth. If the dough sticks to your fingers and bowl, add a little more flour.
· Cover the bowl with a tea towel and place it in a warm and draft-free place until doubled in size (about 1 hour).
· Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk an egg for the wash.
· Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it a little more.
· Cut the dough into 35 equally sized pieces. Roll them into balls, and then into snake shapes.
· Curl the top of the snake one direction and the bottom in the other direction (so it resembles the letter “S”).
· After your 35 “lussekatter” are rolled up and put onto sheet pans, cover them with a tea towel and put them back in the same warm spot. Let them rise another 40 minutes.
· Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400° F.
· Brush the rolls with the egg, and add two raisin eyes to each “lussekatter,” one in the center of each spiral
· Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden.
Yalda Night (Persian Culture)
A hearty soup is also common fare for Yalda Night, an ancient Zoroastrian celebration of the winter solstice, observed in Iran and the Persian diaspora. But the essential elements of Yalda are watermelons (traditionally saved from the summer in cellars) and pomegranates. These are traditionally set, along with dried fruit, nuts and candles, on a low table with a heater underneath, where the family gathers round. To protect against evil forces on the longest night, guests keep the festive mood going until past midnight, drinking wine, telling stories and reading poetry. The red colors of the fruit symbolize the crimson dawn and life; the word “yalda” means “birth” or “rebirth.”
Yalda Modabber is the co-founder and executive director of Golestan, the first Persian language immersion school in the United States, located in El Cerrito. She happens to share her name with the holiday. “It was unusual when my parents named me, like calling your kid Easter. But now it’s become more popular as a name.”
“I didn’t celebrate Yalda as a child, because it was past my bedtime,” says Modabber. “But, at Golestan, this has traditionally been our biggest event of the year, when we recognize Yalda and all the holidays celebrating light that are rooted in the solstice. That month, the children make lanterns and learn about the ways different cultures celebrate their festivals of light. One evening we have a big bonfire with hundreds of people gathering outside, where we all stand around the fire and sing songs.”
This year, because of the pandemic, the school families will not be able to gather as a community, but the classroom teachers will continue the tradition of having each child peel their own pomegranate. At Golestan, food is recognized as an important vehicle of culture, and the school chef always makes Ash (pronounced “osh”), a thick, hearty soup that includes a medley of beans, lots of herbs, turmeric, onions and special noodles.
Ash Reshteh - Bean and Noodle Soup
By Azita Mehran
1 cup red kidney beans, soaked overnight, drained
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight, drained
1 cup lentils
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 bunch spinach, fresh, chopped
1 bunch scallion or chives, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
6 ounces dried noodles for ash; you may find reshteh (noodles) in Persian/Iranian grocery stores.
1 large onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons dried mint
½ teaspoon turmeric
Vegetable oil or olive oil
1 cup kashk (liquid whey)
2 teaspoons liquid saffron, optional
· Place the chickpeas, beans and lentils in a large pot with 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook for 1 1/2–2 hours or until beans are tender.
· Add the chopped vegetables, noodles, salt and pepper. Stir well, cover and cook for another 30-40 minutes on medium-low heat.
· Add more water if needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
· In medium pan, heat 3-4 tbsps olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions and cook until golden.
· Add the garlic and sauté for another 3-5 minutes.
· Add the turmeric powder, stir well.
· Add the dried mint and sauté for 2-3 minutes.
· Pour the soup in a large serving bowl, top with fried onion, garlic and mint mixture, drizzle with liquid saffron and a generous amount of liquid kash. Serve hot with warm bread and extra kashk on the side.