Posts Tagged ‘tteok’

More goodies from my trip to Flushing

September 9, 2009

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I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I really really love 떡, tteok.

I especially love it when I can find it fresh, in long, thick strips, like I did at Hansol Party House at 160-28 Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens.

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A big 2-3 lb. package normally costs $7, but the lady insisted on charging us only $5 because she said there was a little too much water in it that day. She said it would be fine for eating fresh that day, whether pan-fried or sautéed as tteokbokki, but that it would fall apart if I put it in soup for tteok-guk.

I love it when people have such pride in their work, they have to acknowledge when they’re not at their best.

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I was planning to pan fry it for my favorite breakfast. There’s nothing you have to do, other than cut it into manageable pieces, as much as you think want to eat, and then heat some oil in a pan and drop it in. As it fries, it’ll form a lovely, crunchy golden crust while the inside gets warmer and softer. You can turn it around and around for an even glow. Then you can dip it in soy sauce with a little vinegar, sesame oil, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.  Or you can dip it in honey.

Garaetteok is such a versatile ingredient. It can go into tteokbokki, it can go into soup, it can thicken up spicy chicken dakgalbi.

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It can even be made into tteok ‘n cheese, a dish I imagined and my friends executed for a dinner in the Bay Area. I didn’t get to taste it, but I heard it was a huge hit.

But when it’s as good as the stuff from Hansol Party House, it doesn’t need anything else.

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Everything tastes better with rice cakes

August 14, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.