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Celebrating Lunar New Year away from home? Try these quick-fix Korean recipes

Lunar New Year meal prepared by Jessica Woo. <em>Mandus</em> (top), imitation crab <em>jeon</em> (center) and <em>tteokguk</em> (bottom).
Lunar New Year meal prepared by Jessica Woo. Mandus (top), imitation crab jeon (center) and tteokguk (bottom).

Updated January 28, 2022 at 5:55 PM ET

Lunar New Year hits differently during the pandemic. It's an annual holiday celebrated on a bedrock of bringing families, across the country and overseas, together for home-cooked meals and hours of catching up.

Whether you're an international student, living in the city for work, or avoiding contact with elderly family members, it can be really tough to celebrate a cultural holiday on your own, scrambling to find comfort food as a way of feeling connected to loved ones.

For folks like me, trying to figure out how to mark the holiday away from home, I asked some of the greatest creative minds in the kitchen, TikTok chefs, for Korean comfort food recipes.

There's nothing like a classic bowl of tteokguk

A Korean New Year's Day classic, tteokguk is a hearty soup made of disc-shaped rice cakes in clear broth. The heart of this dish is its white color palate, which symbolizes a fresh start to a new year.

<em>Tteokmanduguk</em>, rice cake and dumpling soup.
/ Courtesy of Joanne Molinaro
/
Tteokmanduguk, rice cake and dumpling soup.

For non-meat eaters, vegan food blogger Joanne Molinaro recommends using white cabbage as a base for the soup broth. (Note: Red cabbage shouldn't be substituted for white cabbage for clear broth.) "The key I learned from my aunt is to throw in white cabbage with the part of vegetables you would normally toss like onion peels and the hard end of a radish," she says. "Let them sit for hours, and you get that white, wholesome broth."

Craving a classic bone broth? There's no shame in taking advantage of prepackaged oxtail soups from your local Korean grocer, a quick fix recommended by Korean American restaurateur Chris Cho. When the broth is ready and rice cakes cooked, the soup can be served with garnishes of your choice, including eggs, green onions, seaweed and sesame seeds.

Add in dumplings for tteokmandugook

One way to upgrade a simple tteokguk is by adding Korean dumplings known as mandus. Filled with minced meats, vegetables and/or kimchi, these hearty bites change the soup's name to tteokmandugook, meaning rice cake and dumpling soup.

Jessica Woo, a Las Vegas-based mother of three daughters, recommends parents get their children involved in the kitchen by making mandus from scratch. In addition to following her recipe — from mincing meat, tofu, bean sprouts and eggs to folding the wrap's edges carefully — she points out that "the inside can't be watery. You want to make sure you have cheesecloth, or even a paper towel, to squeeze out all that liquid."

But if any of these instructions sound too complicated, there's nothing wrong with store-bought mandus. In fact, premade dumplings are occasionally featured on Woo's signature bento box lunches.

Here's how to find the right jeon for you

Korean food enthusiasts may be familiar with pajeon, savory pancakes made primarily of wheat and rice flour, eggs and green onions. But besides that and haemul pajeon, made also of seafood, there are lesser known jeons for people with different taste palettes.

On any other Lunar New Year, Molinaro would make rainbow jeon for her parents. Her unique recipe draws inspiration from a Chinese savory fritter made of "colorful, vibrant and textured vegetables" that made her "go grab cabbage, carrots and potatoes from the kitchen. And it just turned out as this beautiful dish," she recalls. Using batter that's infused with garlic and onion powders and soy sauce, she adds, makes rainbow jeon the perfect standalone snack.

Another trendy jeon among Korean home cooks is made of imitation crab. Woo suggests creating heart shapes with the main ingredient, to make room for eggs. Though this isn't a traditional recipe, she recommends it as an additional side dish for children or as a simpler alternative that doesn't require blending ingredients.

Here's other quick fixes for Korean food cravings

Feeling too lazy to cook on a holiday? Molinaro suggests eating a pack of microwavable rice (preferably sticky rice from Korean brands) with some cubed radish kimchi known as kkakdugi. "And if you're feeling fancy, then add a pack of seaweed — now that's a quick fix," she says.

For a meal that's just as simple but with a twist, try Cho's Korean-style tortilla. This four-fold gimbap features four ingredients (rice, kimchi, egg and Spam) that are laid on seaweed and layered into a bite-sized wrap. Even though recipes the Philly-based chef shares on social media "aren't what I'd make at the restaurant, they are focused on how people at home can make exciting Korean food," he says. "I may not be able to serve customers at the physical restaurant, but if more people are eating Korean food from my recipes, I feel like I'm serving the same community in a more meaningful way."

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Janet W. Lee