Tteokbokki is Korea’s most loved snack food. Literally translating to “stir-fried (bokki) rice cakes (tteok),” this satisfying combination of soft, chewy rice cakes in a thick, spicy-sweet sauce is one of the best bites in the country’s dynamic street food scene.
Along the streets, you’ll find many carts and makeshift restaurant tents, called pojangmacha, selling their own versions of the dish.
“No one can deny that the ultimate, most comforting and staple food for Koreans has to be tteokbokki,” said Hanhee Lee, a chef at Sketch restaurant in London, reminiscing about the offerings at his local street market in Seoul.
I, too, have so many fond memories of snacking on tteokbokki—often late at night on the sidewalks of Seoul. Dense and unctuous, the rice cakes help sober you up, and vendors do a roaring trade catering to late night revelers. It’s an inexpensive dish, too, usually going for just a few dollars a plate.
Off of the streets, it’s also a go-to in a home cook’s arsenal of quick, easy, and comforting snacks.
“I grew up eating tteokbokki,” Lee continued. “My mom fed it to me since I was born—and now, I’m six feet tall!”
The Perfect Bite
In its most basic form, tteokbokki consists of rice cakes swimming solo in a glistening, fiery red sauce made of mainly gochujang (Korean chile paste), anchovy stock, and sugar or rice syrup. The sauce is key: it has to hit the right balance of sweetness and spice, combined with the umami flavor of the anchovy stock.
The texture of the rice cakes, or tteok, is important, too—if unusual at first bite, to the uninitiated. When I introduced a South African chef friend to tteok for the first time, she could only describe the toothsome morsels (after much chewing and chewing and pondering) as a denser, chewier version of gnocchi. When making the tteok, nailing the right texture, a balance between yielding softness and bouncy chew, takes time and care.
Tteok come in many varieties, with different preparations and uses, both savory and sweet. The ones used in tteokbokki are called garaetteok, and are made from regular non-glutinous rice flour. While sweet glutinous rice can be directly steamed and pounded into a sticky dough (such as to make injeolmi, another type of tteok that is softer in texture and served coated with various types of bean powder), non-glutinous rice is not sticky, and therefore must first be ground into flour.
To make garaetteok, short-grain rice kernels are soaked overnight, drained, and finely ground into a moist powder. The powder must be shaken through a fine sieve, and the coarser particles repeatedly ground and sieved, over and over, until you have a very fine wet rice flour. This wet flour is then mixed with salt, steamed, and pounded vigorously, traditionally in a mortar and pestle, until it forms a smooth and elastic dough.
The dough is stretched and rolled into long cords of varying thickness and length, depending on use. It is thought that this tteok was named “garae,” meaning “divided” (from the verb “gaeuda”), as these long rolls are always cut into smaller pieces. Another theory is that it was because they resembled the ropes used to pull a type of spade called a garae.
Fat, thick garaetteok thinly sliced into coins are used in a traditional New Year’s soup called tteokguk, meant to bring luck and prosperity. Longer, thinner pieces, rolled to the thickness of a finger, are mainly used in rice cake skewers, called tteok kkochi, or tteokbokki.
My grandmother used to make small batches of tteok by hand, and I have, too—especially for chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving—but it’s more common now to buy the rice cakes ready-made.
Chef Eunjo Park of Kawi Momofuku in New York City makes her own tteok twice daily at her restaurant, a rarity among chefs. She uses a tteok extruder machine from Korea, as most specialty tteok shops now do, which kneads and tumbles the dough to the perfect elasticity before pressing it out through an interchangeable nozzle that allows for various shapes and sizes. Park explained that “texture is the biggest factor” in making the perfect tteok, and freshness makes a huge difference in achieving that right quality between chewiness and softness.
To make tteokbokki at home, buy fresh tteok from a specialty shop if you can find it. Otherwise, frozen is fine—just soak it in water and a splash of soy sauce to soften it before you cook it.
From the Royal Court to the Streets
Like many other Korean dishes, tteokbokki has many variations and has evolved over time.
The original version was not spicy at all, and made instead with a soy sauce-based gravy, with flavors similar to japchae noodles. This savory tteokbokki was called gungjung, or “royal court” tteokbokki, and was a favored dish among the aristocracy during the Joseon Dynasty.
In fact, at the time, only aristocrats were able to eat these pounded rice cakes, as they were expensive and labor-intensive to make. There were even specialized workers in the royal kitchens dedicated to making them.
This regal version of tteokbokki usually included luxury ingredients such as beef and pine nuts. It was also often eaten as a side dish, or banchan.
The ubiquitous spicy tteokbokki most widely known and loved today is said to have been invented by accident by a woman named Ma Bok Lim in the 1950s. She mistakenly dropped some rice cakes into a spicy sauce and loved the taste. She then began selling her new dish in the Sindang district of Seoul, now known as “Tteokbokki Town.”
Nowadays, you’ll find all kinds of ingredients mixed into tteokbokki, along with the requisite rice cakes. Ramen noodles (which turn the dish into “ra-bokki” when added), dumplings, seafood, fish cakes, cheese, sausages, vegetables (mainly carrots, onions, scallions, and napa cabbage), and boiled eggs can all be stirred in for a very satiating meal.
You can even find different kinds of tteok to mix in—brown rice tteok, sweet potato tteok, tteok stuffed with cheese—as well as tteok in different shapes, such as stars and crescent moons. The sauce has evolved, too, with variants such as curry tteokbokki and carbonara tteokbokki gaining popularity.
“Personally, I think tteokbokki keeps evolving and progressing,” Lee said. “In the same way that all Italian grandmas have their own signature pastas, Koreans have their own preferences and versions of tteokbokki.”
Whatever form it takes, tteokbokki is Korean comfort food at its best. And during these challenging times, we all need a bit of Seoul-ful cooking.
Judy Joo is a chef, restaurateur, author, and TV personality. Her newest book is “Judy Joo’s Korean Soul Food.”