I tried to make 떡뽂이, tteokbokki, this past Sunday. The street food version, slick with an almost too-sweet spicy sauce, plus fish cakes and hard-boiled eggs.
It wasn’t hard to make. You take a couple of cups of a simple anchovy broth and toss in the tteok, or long rice cakes. When they start simmering, you add some gochujang, or red pepper paste, maybe a bit of gochukaru, or crushed red pepper, and sugar. I didn’t have enough broth, and I’d made it a little too soon before my guests arrived, so the liquid kept evaporating on me, making the rice cakes stick to the bottom of the pan. (I’d also forgotten to rinse some of the starch of the tteok.) Honestly, it was kind of gross, and it didn’t surprise me that people didn’t eat much of it. But the flavor really wasn’t that unlike what you can find at any pojangmacha, or street food stand, in Korea.
Unfortunately, that was the problem. It tasted just as starchy and boringly sweet as I remembered it. There wasn’t enough going on to make it interesting, no contrasting textures or flavors, which is normally what Korean food really prizes. (And actually, the original palace-style tteokbokki is full of vegetables in contrasting colors and is flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil, so you can actually see the colors instead of just a sea of red.)
I think the love Koreans have for bright red tteokbokki is like the love Americans have for mac-and-cheese. It reminds them of childhood, when life was easy and fairly consistent and nothing could be too sweet. It’s the kind of food kids eat after school, sharing a 2000-won plate with a friend. It’s really one of the cheapest things you can make, which means the pricing of $12 tteokbokki in Manhattan is based completely on nostalgia.
But like mac-and-cheese, there’s room for adult modifications. And I found my inspiration here. (Thanks for the tip, Nancy!)
Apparently, old-fashioned tteokbokki isn’t a soupy, slippery dish but one that’s crispy to the point of being almost charred. I’m not sure what it would mean to “marinate” tteok, and I’ll have to check out this place when I go back to Seoul in the fall to see how it gets cooked in a big wok, but it reminded me of tteok’s magical capacity to be more than a soft, chewy piece of starch.
I was almost embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Growing up, my favorite breakfast was a big, fat piece of tteok that had been pan-fried, and then dipped in a sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and crushed red pepper. (My sister prefers to dip her tteok in honey, also very good.) It’s incredible how much tteok can change when it’s fried. The outside gets really crunchy and golden brown, while the inside gets very warm and soft.
So instead of simmering the rice cakes in liquid, I pan-fried the tteok straight, turning them occasionally so they got golden all over. Then I threw in a couple of spoonfuls of gochujang, sugar, and sesame oil. I had to toss the tteok quickly, because the sugars in the sauce started to burn quickly, but in seconds, the tteok had picked up a spicy-sweet flavor with smoky bits stuck all over.
I wasn’t thrilled with the proportion of gochujang, sugar, and sesame oil. I think I’d like something a little sweeter and a little less dark, as much as I like smoky flavors. But the basic idea worked! It tasted so much more grown-up than the dish I’d made for dinner on Sunday. Eating it, I knew I would want to make it over and over again until I got it right.
I’m posting my rough draft of a recipe because I’m curious to know if anyone has any suggestions for different ingredients I could add to the sauce. I’m nervous about adding more sugar because that would just increase the quick-burn factor, but it definitely needs something to smooth out too-burnt flavor it has now.
Crispy, spicy tteokbokki
8 oz. long, skinny cylindrical tteok or rice cakes, cut into two-inch pieces
1 tablespoon gochujang or red pepper paste
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon oil
1. Heat oil in a pan, preferably cast-iron, over medium-heat.
2. Mix the gochujang, sesame oil, and sugar together. Set aside.
3. Add the tteok and fry for about 5 minutes. Flip over and fry on the other side, until golden-brown.
4. Add the sauce and stir-fry quickly, coating the tteok with the sauce as quickly as possible, for about a minute.
5. Eat while hot! I didn’t bother doing this, but it would definitely look less haphazard garnished with some sesame seeds and maybe a few threads of dried red pepper.