What is tteokbokki?
Stroll along any city center in Korea, and you’ll find plenty of pojangmacha and bunsikjip (street food stalls and snack bars) making and selling tteokbokki.
Similar to Japanese dashi, this broth is usually made with dried kelp and anchovies. For added heat and depth of color, gochugaru (chili flakes) are added, with a little rice syrup (mullyeot) or sugar to balance the flavors. Sliced green onions and sesame seeds finish the dish.
Tteokbokki may be served with a thinner, soup-like sauce, to which eomuk (fish cakes) and hard-boiled eggs are added, or as a drier dish, with a thicker sauce. Again, fish cakes and eggs are optional.
While the spicy street food version has only been around since the 1950s, there is a much older non-spicy dish, believed to be several centuries old, called gangjang-tteokbokki (궁중떡볶이) that’s made with soy sauce.
Although chili peppers didn’t arrive in Korea until the Joseon era (17th-18th century), and it’s believed that gangjang-tteokbokki had been eaten long before that, the earliest written recipe only dates to the late 19th century. This is because until fairly recently, Korea had a high illiteracy rate, so the only people who could read and write were royals, nobles, and religious orders. Much like medieval Europe.
The first recipe for gangjang-tteokbokki is in a cookbook called Siuijeonseo, written by a noblewoman in Sangju. This cookbook also contains the first recipe for bibimbap.
Instead of gochujang, gangjang-tteokbokki (also known as Royal Court tteokbokki) is a slightly sweet, savory dish made with guk-gangjang (국간장 – soup soy sauce), a thin by-product of doenjang. Guk-gangjang can also be made by diluting doenjang (fermented soya bean paste) with brine. In addition to soy sauce and rice cakes, gangjang-tteokbokki is traditionally made with thin pieces of beef or short ribs, pine nuts, scallions, sesame oil and seeds, and garnished with thin strips of omelette. Vegetarian versions include beansprouts, zucchini, mushrooms, carrots, and other vegetables.
A relative newcomer to the Korean street food scene – and popular with younger Koreans, particularly students, is cheese tteokbokki. As its name suggests, this version consists of regular spicy tteokbokki, either mixed with a hefty dose of cheese, or with cheese piled on top.
A specialty of Seoul’s Tongin Market, gireum-tteokbokki (기름떡볶이 – oil tteokbokki) is stir-fried in oil, with only a little gochugaru and broth added.
Other varieties of tteokbokki include:
– seafood – haemul-tteokbokki (해물떡볶이)
– short ribs – galbi-tteokbokki (갈비떡볶이)
– ramen – ra-bokki (라볶이)
– chewy noodles – jol-bokki (쫄볶이)
– hot pot – jeuksok-tteokbokki (즉석떡볶이)
Other recent variations also include curry-tteokbokki (rice cakes pan-roasted with a turmeric-based curry powder), or even sometimes cream-tteokbokki, which has a sauce made with cream and bacon, similar to Italian carbonara.
What is the origin of tteokbokki?
As with so many food origin stories, it’s said that tteokbokki came about as a result of serendipity. Allegedly, during the 1953 opening of a Chinese restaurant in Seoul’s Singdang-dong area, the cook, Ma Bok-Lim accidentally added gochujang to some garaetteok that were simmering in broth. She tasted it, and decided to sell it as tteokbokki.
Whether this is a true story or not is not clear but one thing is certain, tteokbokki is delicious. Enjoy!
- 1 lb garaetteok (Korean rice cakes)
- 4 cups water
- 8 dried anchovies , with heads and guts removed
- 1 (8-inch / 20 cm) piece dried kelp
- 4 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean hot pepper flakes)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 scallions
- Sesame seeds (to finish)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 hard-boiled eggs , halved lengthways
- ½ lb eomuk (Korean fish cakes)
- Deep skillet (or wok)
- Place the water, anchovies, and kelp into a pan over a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, if desired, cut the garaetteok into 2-inch (5 cm) pieces.
- Trim the roots from the green onions, and cut off any dry green parts at the top, then slice into thirds. If they are thick, cut each piece in half, lengthways.
- Once the broth is done, remove the anchovies and kelp, and discard.
- Mix the gochujang (hot pepper paste) into the broth, and stir until dissolved. Stir in the gochugaru (hot pepper flakes), sugar, and the optional soy sauce.
- Stir in the garaetteok (rice cakes) and green onions. If using the eomuk (fish cakes) and eggs, stir these in now, too.
Bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and thickened, and the rice cakes are soft and chewy.
- Serve hot, garnished with some sesame seeds.
If you prefer, you could put the anchovies and kelp into a muslin spice bag, which makes it much easier to remove from the broth.
Fresh rice cakes work best but if you can only get frozen ones, defrost in a bowl of cold water while the broth is simmering. This will also help to soften them.
If using hard-boiled eggs, be careful when stirring into the broth, so as not to separate the yolks from the whites.