When I was younger, I didn’t understand the restorative, purifying effect of tteokguk. Maybe I didn’t even feel like I deserved it. This year, I welcome it.
This is , a monthly column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
Koreans eat tteokguk to mark growing another year older, in both a celebratory and fatalistic way (true to Korean form). The discs of rice cake are meant to echo coins, signifying the hope of wealth and prosperity in the coming year. The white color of the rice cakes and the hot broth are meant to purify the soul—to wash away the detritus of the year before and prepare you to welcome the possibilities of a fresh new year.
After the year I’ve had, I can only hope tteokguk will do this for me.
I’ve made tteokguk on my own for years now. When I was growing up, my mom and Korean grandmother would make it. I’ve always loved it—the interplay of beefy broth and slightly oceanic seaweed, the tender brisket, the chewy rice cakes. I have never been able to eat it without saving one or two rice cakes to slurp out of the bowl and savor at the end. As a kid, I didn’t consider eating tteokguk to be purifying or restorative, but now, looking back on the large family gatherings where we all ate it together, I think it was.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I finally acknowledged my depression. I had been struggling with it for a long time, probably at least since my father died. The first time a therapist told me I was suffering from PTSD after my father’s death, I didn’t want to believe him—I was the oldest child in my family, and I was supposed to be the strong one. I resisted the idea that trauma had sunk its teeth into me, refused to let go; it would be another decade before I would accept this truth.
I wouldn’t say I have ever truly wanted to die, but I have very much wanted to stop existing. In one of my darkest times, I climbed to the peak of a hiking trail near where I live and, for several moments, came close to throwing myself off of it. I didn’t. I went back to therapy, and got on meds for the first time. Gradually, the fog lifted, but at times the sadness is still there.
2018 was, for many people, a very bad year. It was for me, too—the kind of year that even several gallons of tteokguk cannot wash away. My mother got sick, two of my uncles died, I broke my foot, and I was separated from people I loved more than I should have been. This soup of awfulness in which I had been simmering came to a roiling boil, and I felt as though I would disintegrate. Every time it seemed I was about to break the surface, I found I was pulled under by events out of my control, sent spiraling once again.
I missed therapy sessions and was inconsistent with my meds. I could see only despair, loneliness, in my future. The most minor comment from anyone would send me into a shame vortex; afraid to let anyone know how much I was hurting, I instead chose to withdraw. Gone were the days of community and the sharing of food and feelings. I stopped cooking, thereby losing the one activity in which I could truly lose myself and not think about my pain. Again, I wanted to stop existing.
When my foot finally healed, I was able to go back to therapy. I told my therapist how I was feeling and he said, simply, “You’re depressed.” I immediately started crying. I hadn’t considered that I was depressed; I had only considered that I was bad and the world was bad, and therefore things were and would always be terrible.
My brain, in some ways, is bad; it tells me things that aren’t true. However, knowing that the worst things it tells me aren’t necessarily true—and maybe doing something about that—is important. Knowing I am depressed is what helped me get back on my feet.
Sometimes I forget that I am depressed and have anxiety. And sometimes I don’t like saying it aloud, because I don’t want people to think I’m dramatic or to disregard it. Emerging from this most recent bout of depression feels different. I am being honest with myself, with others. I take my meds on schedule, and my therapy appointments are booked through the spring.
The last day of 2018 and the first day of 2019 in Oakland were both crisp, clear days. It’s cold here, in the way that Californians who live in the Bay Area understand cold to be: You feel a shock of clean air in your lungs, and then you walk into a patch of sunlight and feel more ready for today than you did yesterday.
Maybe, I thought on one such cold day, I’m ready to cook again.
Emerging from this most recent bout of depression feels different. I am being honest with myself.
So I found myself on the first day of the new year, making tteokguk again. In past years, when I removed the brisket from the broth, I’ve been too impatient to wait for it to fully cool before pulling it apart. This year, though, I waited. I let time pass me by: not unnoticed, but unhurriedly, and with deep, resonant breaths.
The soup was warm, a sharp contrast to the crisp cold outside. As I sipped it, I thought about each bite as I took it, chewing determinedly on each rice cake and chunk of brisket, tasting the salinity of the broth. I felt the stickiness of the rice cakes on my teeth, clinging like so many bad feelings—but the broth pulled the remnants away and washed them down.
In my younger years, I didn’t understand the restorative, purifying effect of tteokguk. Maybe I didn’t pause to think about what was being washed away at the start of each new year. Maybe I didn’t feel like I deserved that cleansing, that clearing away. This year, I welcome it.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.