For this past week’s Sunday dinner, I served dakgalbi, the spicy chicken dish that’s a favorite of college students all over Korea. I cooked it the way I’d seen it made in Chuncheon, its birthplace, with plenty of sweet potatoes, perilla leaves, and thick cylinders of tteok, or rice cake. My friend Leen, who grew up in Seoul, exclaimed when she saw the dish, “I’m so happy you put tteok in it!” She hasn’t lived in Korea in a long time, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t my innovation, that tteok in dakgalbi is all the rage in Korea these days.
But that’s how it is with 떡, tteok. It keeps showing up in surprising new places.
Tteok is the catch-all word for all sticky, chewy cakes made out of rice or rice flour. But here, I’m talking specifically about the tteok of tteokbokki and tteok-guk, the unsweetened, almost tough cylinders of rice cake that become soft yet resilient when cooked. “Tteok” is pronounced like “duck” with a very emphatic “d,” and technically, this kind of tteok is called 가래떡, or garae-tteok. It falls in the category of rice cakes that was traditionally made by pounding rice flour dough over and over again with a giant wooden mallet. It looks like a lot of work when you see the demonstrations in Insa-dong, but it’s now the easiest thing in the world to buy, available in a plastic bag in the refrigerator case.
This tteok is classic comfort food, starchy, soothing, and very absorbing of any flavors around it. In its spicy, minimalist form, it’s the favorite street food of kids coming home after school, and adults coming home after a night of drinking. In other manifestations, it was the food of kings. It’s beloved by Koreans to the point that they will throw it into anything that will bear it, from bowls of instant ramen to the aforementioned spicy grilled chicken.
If you can find it fresh, of course, that’s best. You’ll have to slice it up yourself but it’ll have a tenderness you’ll never find in the refrigerator case. Still, the pre-cut tteok in plastic bags cooks up surprisingly well, especially if you remember to soak the cakes in cold water for about 20 to 30 minutes before cooking. I would be careful about buying Chinese brands, though, for something like rice cake and dumpling soup. A similar sort of rice cake, also cut into thin ovals, is popular in Shanghainese cooking, but I don’t think the rice cakes ever get used in soup, and the one time my friend and I used them in tteok-guk, they left a mushy, chalky feel in our mouths.
For something like dakgalbi, you want to use the tteok that’s cut into two-inch long cylinders. When you throw the cakes into a mix of chicken marinated in gochujang, or red pepper paste, with strips of perilla leaves, cabbage, and sweet potato chunks, the tteok adds a completely separate texture. It ends up being the kind of thing you root around for, what you want more of, maybe even more than the chicken.
I played around with two separate recipes that night, the main difference being the small but very noticeable presence of Asian curry powder in one of them. I was so overwhelmed by the thought of cooking for 13, I just started tossing more chicken and sweet potato in. My recipe will definitely need tweaking before publication. But if you absolutely cannot wait and must search the internet for “dakgalbi recipe,” I recommend you try the kind with curry powder in it. It adds a strong, almost weird flavor that helps balance out the inherent sweetness of the gochujang and the sweet potatoes. The flavor worried me at first, the thought of a Korean dish with curry, but hey, the dish itself didn’t get invented until the 1960’s. It’s important to move with the times.