Posts Tagged ‘rice cakes’

Chuseok, Songpyeon and Pretty Daughters

October 1, 2012

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Maria is working on a career in optometry. She was a tester of recipes for our upcoming cookbook. Grace and I are thrilled that she agreed to share her experiences here with us – Diane

During my summer back in Berkeley, I came across a job posting on Craigslist for a recipe tester position. It was the first time I heard of such a position and immediately became excited at the opportunity of combining my love for cooking and my love for science. While testing recipes for Diane and Grace, it brought me back to my organic chemistry lab days when I had to accurately measure and follow directions in hopes that my experiment turned out well.

A few days ago, I was instructed to test a recipe for making songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes). As usual, I started out by glancing over the recipe before taking a moment to read the history that provides me with some background and allows me to better understand the dish. Reading this portion is something I truly enjoy because it allows me to learn about Korean culture and cuisine. But a sentence caught my attention and made me pause and re-read it. It stated that the person that makes pretty songpyeon will have a pretty daughter. I found this idea captivating and a special touch to the history section of the recipe.

Maria’s first attempt at making songpyeon

However, when I began testing this recipe, this statement started to feel threatening to me. I felt the pressure of making this recipe work because like all women, I want to give rise to pretty daughters. At first, I played around with this idea, jokingly telling Diane that I did not want an ugly daughter, but proceeding with extra caution. Unfortunately, and without a doubt, I failed. Too many things went wrong, and I ran into trouble at almost every step. By the time I needed to shape the rice cakes, I had become frustrated so I decided to form the rice cakes as if I were making Mexican empanadas, something with which I was familiar. This approach did not help either and I lost hope, but carried on. My final product was deformed, oily, mushy, and definitely not pretty.

Yesterday was Chuseok, a day where Koreans celebrate the fall and harvest season with food and drink. Songpyeon is one of the major foods prepared for Chuseok. I want to wish you a Happy Chuseok and the best of luck in making beautiful songpyeon.


The power of beans and sticky rice cakes on the shortest day of the year

December 21, 2009

Photo by Diane Choo

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and in Korea, people are eating 팥죽, patjuk or a red bean porridge with sticky rice cakes.  Like a lot of old customs, it’s not so strictly observed now.  I don’t remember ever marking this day in any way with my family, and you can find red bean porridge year-round. But I like the spirit of this day, the idea that the redness of the beans signals some good power that will ward off bad spirits.  Here in New York, we’re still buried under the remnants of this weekend’s snowstorm and the days are so short and so dark, I want to believe in some powerful beans.

So what is this dish?  It’s very, very simple.  Korean pat beans (pronounced “pAHt”), also known in Japan as azuki beans, are soaked and then boiled until they turn soft.  The porridge is ground or pureed until smooth, though it doesn’t have to be refined and strained.  Usually, it’s served with small sticky rice cakes made out of glutinous or sweet rice, which are called sae-ahl, or birds’ eggs.  There’s almost nothing else that’s added to this dish, maybe chestnuts or dried red dates if you’re feeling fancy.  Sugar or honey is added if you like it sweet, but there are those who just like that earthy, bean flavor and want nothing more.

At its best, it tastes like purity and wholesomeness.  Not the kind advocated by religious fanatics, but the kind that makes the other little details of life sharper.  At least that’s what I think, because the best patjuk I’ve ever had was in a little town in the mountains under a persimmon tree.

The day was still warm, and we sat down on the wooden table outside.  It was a lucky find for us, recommended by the Buddhist layperson who had prepared our lunch.  She had told us, almost clutching her heart, that it was the most delicious patjuk in the world.  (Just because they’re Buddhists doesn’t mean they don’t take joy in sensual pleasures.)  But with vague directions and the assurance that we would simply find this 옛날팥죽, or Old-Fashioned Red Bean Porridge, we hadn’t been counting on it.

The restaurant was short and squat.  Inside, there was a cast-iron stove, rough wood furniture, and a tiny piano.  Outside were jars of doenjang, gochujang, the essential condiments of Korean life, with flowering plants piled around and on top, a garden of pastes and blossoms.  The food was served in the kind of traditional pottery I love most, thick, strong, and effortlessly functional.  I saw some paintings this weekend that reminded me of these plates–how good do you have to be to make something that looks so casually right?

The woman who served us wore a skirt with natural dyes and a deep purple sweater.  She was beautiful, with an aesthetic you don’t see much in Seoul these days but is still popular in Korea.  Modern Koreans aren’t so good at living harmoniously with nature, but there’s still some persistent hope, I suppose, that it’s possible.

We ordered a big bowl of patjuk with both sticky rice cakes and kalguksu or knife-cut wheat flour noodles.  I’d never had kalguksu with patjuk before, but it was surprisingly good.  They tasted even chewier and more delicious in contrast to the smoothness of the beans.  The patjuk came with a little bowl of light brown sugar to add to taste, which meant we could see the flavor change from earthy to round.  The kimchi was very good, too, lightly salted with just a slight sourness that made us want to eat more of everything.

We were very happy.  It would be good to have those powerful beans now.

경남 하동 화개장터의 옛날팥죽, Gyeongnam Hadong Hwagae Jangteo Yeotnal Patjuk, 055-884-5484

Grown-up rice cakes

June 7, 2009
The tteokbokki Diane and I had in Seoul in February.

The tteokbokki Diane and I had in Seoul in February.

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
Serves two
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.

Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings

April 13, 2009


I almost forgot about the rice cake soup on Sunday night.

I had decided to reprise the fried chicken, in honor of my friend Sharon’s visit from New Haven, and given how long it takes to fry 5 pounds of fried chicken plus the amount of food we’d already eaten, it wasn’t surprising I forgot about the beef broth just simmering at the back of the stove.

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

When I finally did get around to serving it, it was warmly appreciated it, the way it always is.  떡국, tteok-guk, or rice cake soup, is one of the milder Korean soups.  There’s no fiery red pepper or fermented soybean paste in it.  It’s just a beef broth in which ovals of sliced rice cakes are simmered until soft but still chewy, often along with some dumplings.  On fancy occasions, it gets garnished with thinly fried eggs cut in elaborate diamonds or strips, shredded meat, and strips of roasted seaweed, for a very colorful presentation.  But growing up, it was also what my mom made when she was pressed for time.  She’d worked out an everyday version, in which she would sautee strips of beef in soy sauce and pour in some water for a surprisingly tasty broth.  When the rice cakes were tender, she would break the eggs straight into the pot and stir it up into ribbons of white and yellow.  I found tteok-guk boring and tiresome until I left home and realized there was nothing I would rather eat when I am tired or sad.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Given how everyday it was in our house, though, I’d always wondered why rice cake soup is a celebratory food.  It’s always served on New Year’s Day, and given that traditionally, Koreans celebrated turning one year older collectively on New Year’s as well, it’s a birthday soup, too.

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

It turns out, it’s all about rice.  Even though rice is a central part of the Korean diet, it’s only recently that it’s become so common as to be a background food, something to eat with everything else on the table.  For most of Korean history, it was too expensive to eat everyday.  Most people ate barley or millet, sometimes mixed with rice, but often without even a grain of rice.  In the north, noodles made out of buckwheat, arrowroot, or sweet potatoes were the common starch.  So to take that precious rice, grind it into rice flour, and then make rice cakes out of it, which is no easy thing itself, that was the height of luxurious living.  To eat like a king one day out of the year—what could be more celebratory?

Now, it takes nothing to go to the store and buy a bag of pre-sliced rice cakes.  We’ve lost something in not knowing what kind of labor it takes to grow rice and to pound it into chewy cakes.  I wonder how it must have felt, to sit at a table on New Year’s waiting for your wonderful bowl of tteok-guk to appear.  But I like to think that for those who appreciate good food, no matter how simple and easy and everyday, we will always recognize when we are eating like kings.

This is a very simple write-up, as the amounts are still estimates and the final version will have some more detailed explanations.  But if you get a chance, it’s a nice soup to eat in these last cool nights of spring.

Serves 6-8

4 quarts of water
1 lb. of beef brisket
5 cups of sliced rice cakes, rinsed in water and drained
3 tablespoons Korean soup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Korean dark soy sauce (you can use Kikkoman for both but it’s saltier so be careful and taste as you go along)
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped green onions.
4 eggs
freshly ground pepper
1 sheet of roasted seaweed for garnish

1.  Put the brisket in a large pot with four quarts of water.  Bring it to a boil and skim off the foam and fat at the top.  Simmer for at least two hours, skimming off the foam occasionally, until the beef is tender.  (Last night, I added some oxtail and more water, ending up with an incredibly rich and golden broth, complete with globules of fat floating on the surface.  The beef broth experimentation continues…)

2.  Take the brisket out and let it cool.  When it’s cool enough to touch, shred it into thin pieces about 2-3 inches long.  Toss the shredded brisket with the dark soy sauce, ground red pepper, chopped garlic and chopped green onions.  Set aside.

3.  Bring the broth back to a boil and then let it simmer.  Season the broth with soup soy sauce.  Taste as you go along, as the saltiness of soy sauces can vary a lot by brand.

4.  Add the rice cakes.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste and make sure that it’s soft.  It should be tender but still chewy.

5.  Add the shredded beef.  Break the eggs into the pot and swirl with a pair of chopsticks.  Let it simmer just a minute more for the eggs to set.

6.  Ladle the soup into bowls.  Garnish with thin strips of roasted seaweed and add freshly ground pepper before serving.

(Is it totally confusing to have pictures of food we ate, but I don’t describe in the post?  Let me know.)

One of my favorite breakfasts

December 31, 2007

Fried rice cake, all crispy on the outside, all chewy on the inside, dipped in a sauce of soy sauce, sesame seed oil, and a dash of red pepper flakes. (My sister prefers to dip hers in honey.)

2008 has already arrived in Korea, and in a few hours, we’ll be eating rice cake and dumpling soup, and a few hours later, my mother’s fabulous New Year’s feast. Happy New Year, everyone!