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That’s What I Get For Trying To Honor My Ancestors With Chestnuts I Found On The Street

The author holding a chestnut she found on the street

This was supposed to be a nice little blog about a nice little recipe I made using nice little chestnuts I found on my walk yesterday morning. But it’s not. 

Here’s what happened. 

Yesterday, I discovered a trove of chestnuts on the side of the street and went squirrel mode. I picked up the spiky pods and split them open to reveal the brown nuts inside, and as I filled my pocket, I fantasized about making yul-lan, chestnut cookies. 

The end of this week is Chuseok, the Korean harvest holiday marked by three days of eating, spending time with family, and honoring ancestors. I didn’t grow up celebrating Chuseok every year; occasionally we went to another Korean family’s house for dinner, but because we moved around every few years, and because my Korean mother’s family is all still back in Korea, Chuseok wasn’t a consistent annual holiday for us the way the American holidays were. I didn’t feel entitled to Korean holidays, and celebrating them felt a little awkward, maybe even appropriative. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve made more of an effort to connect with Korean culture, both traditional and contemporary. As I’ve taken my first awkward steps toward placing offerings in front of photos of ancestors and marking death anniversaries, I’ve found comfort in doing the same actions and eating the same foods as all the generations before me. 

Making yul-lan was supposed to be another step on that journey, complete with a lovely baked-in metaphor about starting where you are and appreciating how much can be harvested even from the tree down the street. 

I washed the chestnuts and set them in a pot on the stove to boil. 

About a pound and a half of foraged chestnuts in a pot on my stove.

If you’re looking at these photos and saying “Alex NO those are horse chestnuts and they’re poisonous,” la la la I can’t hear you and also you are reading this in the future. Luckily, as the chestnuts boiled, I decided to google the seed pods I’d found to make sure I had the right name. And, well. I threw out all the beautiful nuts. 

So there I was with an open Google Doc, a taste for Korean sweets, and a trash can full of poisonous nuts. My mind went next to hodugwaja, a sweet walnut bread you can buy from street vendors. We had walnuts, and the bread around it is a lot like pancake batter. I found this recipe, and ran out to the local Asian market to get sweet red bean paste. 

Once I got home, I got to work making the batter. Simple enough.

A bowl with the dry ingredients for hogugwaja batter with a rubber spatula resting on the side.

We have a cast iron ebelskiver pan because my husband has this fixation of making ebelskivers every couple of years and honestly they’re not so different. It seemed like the perfect size and shape for what I needed. I got started with a confidence that was completely unwarranted given the day I’d already had. 

Things did not start well. 

I overfilled the divots with batter and as they cooked they exploded everywhere, burning in some places and still raw and liquid in others. I used chopsticks to pry dry bits of batter off the pan to try and flip them, and this is when I lost control. 

A mess of hogugwaja batter in various states of cookness (from raw to burnt) exploding over a cast iron ebelskiver pan.

I should note that I also had an episode of the new season of Selling the O.C. playing in the background, so I’d like you to picture me sweating over a hot pan with seven tiny pancake-like bubbles cooking at different rates while women scream at each other. Extremely appropriate soundtrack, tbh. 

After my first batch, my husband came over to give me some tips. Use butter to grease the pan, not Pam. Start with a small dollop of batter before you add the filling, and then tilt the pan to let it coat the bottom of the divot before adding the filling and the top dollop of batter. I switched from my chopsticks to a tiny rubber spatula, which made for a smoother scoop when I flipped. 

My completed plate of red bean and walnut hogugwaja, which is extremely ugly but still delicious.

I did two more rounds and they were a little bit smoother, but didn’t yield much prettier results. Still, it tasted good—I’ve had six in the process of writing this blog—and I’m proud of myself for trying a new Korean recipe. 

Chuseok is this Thursday through Saturday. I’ll make japchae (easy! Foolproof!) and steamed songpyeon (unfuckupable!) on Friday and offer a little cup of soju (it’s ready-to-drink out of the bottle!) to my ancestors. I’m sure they’re rolling their eyes at me now, but I’m doing my dang best here.  

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