Korean food: Tteok-bokki

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Tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or stir-fried rice cakes is one of Korea’s popular snacks that are loved by teenagers as well as adults. Tteok-bokki is made from small-sized garae-tteok (long, white, cylinder-shaped rice cakes) called tteokmyeon (“rice cake noodles”) or commonly tteok-bokki-tteok (“tteok-bokki rice cakes”). Other ingredients are fish cakes, boiled eggs, and scallions. It can be seasoned with either spicy gochujang (red chili pepper paste) or non-spicy ganjang (soy sauce)-based sauce; the former being the prototype, and the latter often called gungjung-tteok-bokki (royal court tteok-bokki). Nowadays, variations also include curry-tteok-bokki, cream sauce-tteok-bokki, jajang-tteok-bokki, seafood-tteok-bokki, galbi-tteok-bokki and so on. Tteok-bokki is commonly purchased and eaten at bunsikjip (snack bars) as well as pojangmacha (street stalls).

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History

Tteok-bokki via KimchiChick

The first record on tteok-bokki appears in Siuijeonseo, a 19th century cookbook, where the dish was listed using the archaic spelling steokbokgi. According to the book, tteok-bokki was called by various names including tteokjjim (steamed rice cakes), tteok-japchae (stir-fried rice cakes), and tteok-jeongol (rice cakes hot pot). The royal court version was made from white tteok (rice cakes), sirloin, sesame oil, soy sauce, scallions, rock tripe, pine nuts, and toasted and ground sesame seeds, while the savory, soy sauce-based tteok-bokki was made in the head house of Papyeong Yun clan, where good-quality soy sauce was brewed. In this version, short ribs among others was a common ingredient. The name tteok-bokki also appears in the revised and enlarged edition of Joseon Yori Jebeop, where it is described as a soy sauce-based savory dish.

It is believed that red, spicy tteok-bokki with gochujang -based sauce first came up in 1950s, and was popularized in 1970s. As it was a folksy food for working class people, wheat tteok often substituted the rice ones. Sindang neighborhood in Seoul, where the spicy tteok-bokki was first sold, is still famous for its tteok-bokki alleys. Nowadays, typical tteok-bokki purchased and eaten at bunsikjip (snack bars) and pojangmacha (street stalls) are red and spicy, while the soy sauce-based non-spicy version is referred to as gungjung-tteok-bokki. Rice tteok regained popularity with the economic development, and various versions of the dish have proliferated in South Korea and in the world.

Varieties

Tteok-bokki via Pinterest

Gochujang tteok-bokki

Piquant, red gochujang-based tteok-bokki is one of Koreans’ favorite snacks. Both soupy gungmul-tteok-bokki (“soup tteok-bokki“) and dry gireum-tteok-bokki (“oil tteok-bokki“) are commonly enjoyed, while the former is considered as the prototype. In gungmul-tteok-bokki, kelp-anchovy stock is often used to bring out the savory flavor. Gochutgaru (chili powder) is often added for additional heat and color, while mullyeot (rice syrup) helps with sweetness and consistency. Eomuk (fish cakes), boiled eggs, and diagonally sliced scallions are common addition to the dish. In gireum-tteok-bokki, the mixture of gochutgaru (chili powder), soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil often replaces gochujang (chili paste). Soft tteok sticks are seasoned with the sauce mixture, then stir-fried in cooking oil with a handful of chopped scallions and served. Tongin Market in Jongno, Seoul is famous for gireum-tteok-bokki.

Gungjung tteok-bokki

Sweet and savory, brown soy sauce-based tteok-bokki is often referred to as gungjung-tteok-bokki. Its history dates back to a royal court dish before the introduction of chili pepper, which happened in the late Joseon era. Having similar taste to japchae (stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables), it was enjoyed by the royals as a banchan and as a snack.Although traditional tteok-bokki was made with soup soy sauce, which is the traditional (and was the only) type of soy sauce in the pre-modern Korea, sweeter regular soy sauce has taken its place in modern time. Other traditional ingredients such as sirloin or short ribs, sesame oil, scallions, rock tripe, pine nuts, and toasted and ground sesame seeds are still commonly used in modern gungjung-tteok-bokki. Other ingredients such as mung bean sprouts, carrots, onions, dried Korean zucchini, garlic, and pyogo mushrooms are also frequently used. The dish is usually served with egg garnish.

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