Taste of Korea: Cooking up your own spicy, tasty Tteokbokki
Taste of Korea: Cooking up your own spicy, tasty Tteokbokki
Each of us has one or two kinds of nostalgic food that brings back old memories. As a Korean, the food that induces nostalgia is a spicy tteokbokki. Tteokbokki (or stir-fried rice cake) is a beloved comfort food mainly made of gochujang (red pepper paste) and cut garaetteok, cylinder-shaped white rice cakes. You might also find it served with fish cake, boiled eggs and scallions for added flavor and texture.
When I was in elementary school, tteokbokki was the only snack I could enjoy with my daily allowance of 500 won (about $0.41). Back then, the big flat pot with gooey rice cakes in thick gochujang sauce was like heaven on earth for me. I remember devouring the tteokbokki with cabbage.
Even in high school, my friends and I would head to the snack bar nearby to refuel on tteokbokki while studying for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). This tradition continued at college, where, for a poor student like me, this chewy, flavorful dish served with fried vegetables was a cheap and delicious meal. I think tteokbokki will be my go-to for the rest of my life.
Despite sounding like I’m a tteokbokki superfan, this is a common food many enjoy and have enjoyed since the Joseon Dynasty. Old literature shows that the tteokbokki was served at the royal palace but as gungjung, a non-spicy version, made with soy sauce, vegetables and beef. Today, this is no longer a dish reserved for royalty and it is readily available at restaurants and buffets around South Korea.
The spicy version we all love, however, actually originates from post-Korean War Seoul. A woman named Ma Bok-rim living in Sindang-dong neighborhood accidentally dropped garaetteok (the unseasoned, plain rice cakes) into a bowl of jajangeyeon (black soybean-sauce noodles). Since food was a commodity after the war, Ma tried the dish so it wouldn’t go to waste. The flavors of the sauce melding with the chewiness of the rice cakes was the inspiration for her to try seasoning the rice cakes with the red pepper paste.
An interesting fact is that since tteokbokki came about post-war and is now considered one of the most common Korean street foods, it only exists in South Korean cuisine. So, don't fight with your brothers at home, otherwise, one of your brothers might lock the door and enjoy the delicious food alone.
Spicy tteokbokki’s history isn’t very long, but more than half a century has passed since its creation and now there are more variations. Not a fan of spicy foods? Try carbonara or curry tteokbokki. Though a bit controversial for tteokbokki purists, I love the fusion varieties, too.
Recently, the Tteokbokki Museum opened in Daegu and since I have had to put my visit on hold, I decided to make my favorite dish at home. It’s easy to make and if you’ve grown tired of your usual recipes, mix it up with this Korean favorite. Cooking is a stress and disappointment reliever (and for me, an opportunity to cook as much tteokbokki as I want and can eat!).
Tteokbokki at home
All the ingredients to cook up this star are found at any local grocery store or convenience store in South Korea. This recipe will allow you to use up leftovers and clean out your fridge if you do not stick to the old way of tteokbokki cooking.
- PREP TIME: 10 minutes
- COOK TIME: 15 minutes
- TOTAL TIME: 25 minutes
- DIFFICULTY: Easy
- SERVINGS: 2
• 350g cylinder-shaped rice cake (tteokbokki tteok) or 1 packet of instant tteokbokki. Use a little more if you’re not adding optional ingredients.
• 2 cups water or anchovies stock. (*1 cup = 250ml)
• 150g Korean fish cakes, hard-boiled eggs, green (or napa) cabbage, one stalk green onion, and any veggies you prefer. (optional)
Sauce (You can skip this step if you buy a tteokbokki packet that comes with the sauce mixed with gochujang seasoning)
• 3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red chili paste)
• 1 1/2 tbsp sugar (You can use honey or oligofructose instead sugar. I prefer to skip this ingredient.)
• 1 tbsp soy sauce
• 1 tsp minced garlic (I put 4 tsp minced garlic to suit my taste)
• 1 tsp dried red pepper powder (Optional, but the more you add, the spicier your sauce will be)
(*1 tbsp = 15 ml)
- 1 stalk small green onion, chopped
Rinse the rice cakes and soak them in water for about 10 to 15 minutes. Or just rinse them if you going to buy an instant tteokbokki packet that has sauce.
(In the local grocery market, there are two types of rice cake for the tteokbokki dish. The first thing is a small portion of packet that has sauce. Another one is a large number of rice cakes in the clear packet, which one is somewhat thicker and harder than the small instant packet.)
For the broth, you have many options. For the traditional way, boil dried anchovies and dried kelp for about 15 min, strain the ingredients and keep the broth. If you have beef or chicken stock available, feel free to use this instead. Another option is just 2 cups of water.
This is a step to upgrade your tteokbokki dish. Cut the fish cake, cabbage, and scallions into bite-sized pieces. Don’t forget to mince to garlic. When you cook tteokbokki, be creative. You can put any veggies you already have in the kitchen such as broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, etc. Halved hard-boiled eggs are also a popular topping.
Put broth (or just water), rinsed rice cakes and veggies you’ve prepared in a pan or shallow pot. And add your sauce packet.
If you bought a large packet that has no sauce, then add gochujang (Korean red chili paste) and rest of seasonings in the ingredient list. Simmer for about 10-15 mins. Until the rice cakes are fully cooked and the sauce thickens. Make sure to stir so the sauce won’t stick to the pan.
A common ingredient that has started to pop up on tteokbokki dishes is sesame seeds sprinkled on top as a garnish. I don’t really like it but give it a try if it appeals to you. I usually stick to just chopped green onions on top. Other popular garnishes include cilantro, parmesan cheese powder, or mozzarella cheese. Serve it up as soon as it’s done cooking and enjoy. Bon appetite!
Do you like spicy food? Mae-un eum-sik joh-a-hae-yo?
I can’t handle spicy food. Jeo-neun mae-un geol jal mot meo-geo-yo.
I love spicy food. Jeo-neun mae-un eum-sik jeong-mal joh-a-hae-yo.
It’s really good! Masisseoyo!
Let’s go to snack bar to eat tteokbokki. Bun-sik-jeom-e tteokbokki meo-geu-reo-gayo.
What does it taste like? Masi eottaeyo?
Oh, that’s quite hot. O, jom mae-wo-yo.
Please give me some water. Mul jom ju-se-yo.
Your face is so red! Eol-gul-i jin-jja ppal-gae-jyeo-sseo!
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