Growing up in the New England suburbs, celebrating the Lunar New Year was one of the main ways I was able to connect with my Korean heritage. As with many other Asian countries, Lunar New Year marks the very first day of the lunar calendar or the second moon following the cold winter solstice. Known in the Korean language as 설날 (Seollal), the festivities are meant to not only celebrate the passage of another year and act as a clean transition into a brand new year but it also acts as a time for reflection in which families can pay their respects to their ancestors.
Of course, one of the other crucial purposes is to feast and the biggest component of the celebration is the elaborate dinners that are composed of several exquisite dishes.
There is no doubt that every family’s Seollal breakfast table will have some similar components, such as tteokguk (rice cake soup, japchae (stir-fried sweet potato glass noodles) and jeon (savory meat or vegetable pancakes.) But they won’t all be uniform. Regardless of what a Seollal spread looks like, many dinners will conclude with cold cups of Sujeonggwa, a traditional Korean cinnamon ginger punch. This drink serves both as a dessert beverage and a digestive tonic. It is full-bodied, not cutting any corners with its potency of spice, while incredibly refreshing and easy to down. It is the drink of choice after consuming a richer celebratory fare. One of the earliest mentions of the cinnamon ginger punch’s preparation for festivity purposes traces back to the Goryeo Dynasty (from 918-1382 CE) when the palace women would brew it for the New Year’s Day meal.
Beyond being the sweet drink to toast the start of the Lunar calendar, Sujeonggwa is readily consumed from the start of crisp autumn all the way until the conclusion of chilly winter. It seems even more timely to prepare the beverage right now when the temperatures in New York are near freezing and the pandemic has occupied people’s health. I’ve been fortunate to avoid having the Coronavirus. And yet, the stresses of these times have indubitably taken a toll on my immunity. Kombucha and apple cider vinegar shots can only work so much. When they don’t, I turn to Sujeonggwa. I find that drinking a cold cup or two when I sense my body weakening helps to revitalize it simultaneously helping me stay…chill. Ginger is a natural antibiotic that helps fight off free radicals while cinnamon keeps the blood circulation flowing, further delivering on anti-inflammation. As a home cook, I prefer to rely on natural, unprocessed ingredients so I swirl in date sugar instead of white sugar to sweeten up my punch.
Grab a cup and let’s cheers to the Lunar New Year. Good health to you all as we carry on through the cold and Covid.
Makes 2-3 servings
1/2 ounce fresh ginger root
1 cinnamon stick
3 cups water
1/3 cup date sugar
2 whole dried persimmons
Pine nuts for garnish
1) Peel ginger and cut it into thin slices. Rinse cinnamon stick with water.
2) Fill medium pot with water. Add sliced ginger and cinnamon sticks and bring to a roiling boil over medium heat. Let simmer for 20 minutes.
3) Strain ginger and cinnamon to remove any debris.
4) Transfer strained liquid into a pitcher. Add in the date sugar and stir well. Place in persimmons.
5) Chill mixture in the refrigerator for 6 hours or overnight.
6) Serve cold and garnish with a sprinkling of a few pine nuts on top.
Justine Lee is a food writer, recipe developer, and illustrator based in NYC. Her work is readily informed by the taste nostalgia she has of her Korean-American upbringing in the Connecticut suburbs. She enjoys vegan/gluten-free baking, drinking iced coffee year-round, and going on long runs while listening to Taylor Swift. You can find her at @justyfication on Instagram.