Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tteokbokki: The Beloved Spicy, Chewy Rice Cake Dish of Korea

Korean tteokbokki 떡보끼
Tteokbokki or the westernized pronounciation: Topokki is one of those dishes you have to experience to understand the hype surrounding it. It is a beloved dish in Korea that invokes nostalgic memories and emotions. It is a child's special meal after a long, grueling day at school or a dish shared between girls to discuss gossip. It is a dish with many different variations such as with cheese sauce, sesame soy, and even tomato. These days the trend is for gukmul Tteokbokki or spicy broth rice cakes. The noodles are in light broth that is spicy and sweet.

I have seen many a Koreans debate about their favorite topokki and about the merits of different styles and sauces. Some like thick long rods of rice cake while others like the smaller and chewier nugget-style rice cakes. There is also a debate between the fluffier flour made cakes and the must chewier rice-made cakes. Toppings range from simple fish cake to various seafood such as octopus, mussels, shrimp to other ingredients like cheese, beef bulgogi, dumplings, ramen, egg...the possibilities are endless. After you eat the dish there is inevitably sauce and other bits left over so it is possible to make a fried rice with the leftovers by adding seaweed laver, sesame oil and corn.

When I meet international travelers on food tours they are all curious about this dish. They perceive the hype surrounding it but they can’t seem to fathom what it really is. I guess to travelers seeing it for the first time, it may look like a red hot mess. Some of my guests have seen this dish before on Korean dramas and television so they are curious. They want to try it but they assume that it is very, very spicy and they don’t really know what the rice cakes or the fish cakes in the sauce are. Some guests have even asked me if the dish has tripe or pig skin in it. Also with so many places from street carts to store fronts selling this dish, they can’t decide where to try it.

For those that don’t know what topokki is, it is rice cake noodles in a spicy chili sauce. The dish is said to have evolved from a royal court cuisine dish that was made with rice cakes, mushrooms, carrots, and beef in a sesame-soy-sauce seasoning. Rice cakes in olden times were a luxury that was reserved for special occasions and for the rich. In the mid 19 hundreds, because of advances in technology and rice surpluses this ingredient was more readily available.

It is widely believed that the red chili paste version recipe was invented by accident in 1953, when street food vendor Ma Bok-rim accidentally dropped a rice cake into her father-in-law’s black bean noodle dish. It tasted good, so she started experimenting with sauces and seasonings.

She found that the red chili paste tasted the best and started selling it from her street cart. She would sell topokki along with steamed corn and potatoes to those going to a nearby theatre. The dish was a big hit and soon she upgraded her street stall to a restaurant and others copied her. Her restaurant can still be found near the entrance of Sindang-dong Topokki Town, proudly proclaiming “Since 1953.” 

Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki

Opened in 1953 by a woman known as Mabongnim, the restaurant takes pride in its 60-plus years of service. They serve a Korean casserole dish called tteokbokki which has chewy rice cake noodles in a spicy soup broth that has noodles, fish cakes, seafood, dumplings and more. This restaurant started as a small food stall that was serving snacks to guests going to the nearby theatre when a mistake was made. A rice cake noodle fell into the black bean sauce and Mabongnim had an eureka moment. She cooked the noodles in a sauce and tteokbokki was invented. As Mabongnim gained popularity, other similar establishments opened nearby, and eventually, formed “tteokbokki street.” The elderly owner is well known. She even starred in a red-pepper paste ad in the 1990s. The secret of this restaurant’s tteokbokki lies in the sauce. Here red pepper paste is mixed with Chinese soybean paste for a sweet and spicy taste.

Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki
Click Here for mobile map Jung-gu Dasan-ro 35 gil 5 (Sindangdong)