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Beyond ‘the heat’

ANN/THE KOREA HERALD – Few dishes in the world of Korean street food are as beloved and iconic as tteokbokki.

The spicy delight is a must-try for those in search of an authentic Korean culinary experience.

Tteokbokki is a popular Korean snack of chewy cylindrical rice cakes slathered in a spicy sauce made primarily with red pepper paste. Fish cakes and other vegetables are often added. The dish is spicy, sweet, chewy and addictive.

Tteoksan, a tteokbokki eatery, in Seoul’s Bukchon neighbourhood, just a few minutes walk from Anguk Station on Line No 3, is famous for its exceptional sauce, which won the grand prize at Seoul City’s Jang Fermentation Sauce Contest in 2021.

On weekends, a long line forms in front of this small eater, even half an hour before it opens.

The origin of Tteoksan can be traced back to a family-owned tteokbokki eatery in Busan from 25 years ago. The restaurant moved to Yeonseo Market in Yeonsinnae, northern Seoul, in 2017.

Over the years, the eatery continued to gain popularity. Ha Min-ji, the daughter of the family, learned how to make the dish from her mother and opened Tteoksan in Bukchon in April.

Tteokbokki is cooked in a large pot at Tteoksan in Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD
ABOVE & BELOW: Tteoksan in Bukchon, Jongno-gu central Seoul; and Tteoksan’s interior with the red and white hues of tteokbokki. PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD

Tteoksan’s Bukchon restaurant defies the perception of tteokbokki as mere street food, right from the outside appearance of the restaurant. The restaurant showcases a blend of traditional and modern in its interior, complete with the colours of tteokbokki – red and white.

Tteoksan sources freshly made rice cakes daily from a local rice cake mill, using garaetteok, or thick bar rice cake, in the traditional Busan style of making tteokbokki.

Tteoksan only uses rice cakes, emphasising its dedication to the beloved Korean snack.

The restaurant’s fish cakes are sourced directly from Busan’s Mido Eomuk, a well-known brand established in 1963 that has been in the same family for three generations. “My mum taught me always to use the best ingredients… suitable for any family meal table,” Ha told The Korea Herald. “I can assure our customers that not only the chili powder but also the cooking oil we use are of high quality, reflecting my mom’s philosophy which she upheld for 30 years.”

The sauce is a blend of 15 ingredients which is allowed to ferment at a low temperature for 72 hours.

The result is a dense and rich texture, setting it apart from other tteokbokki establishments that typically have a thinner sauce.

“We can’t reveal our secret recipe, but we use sikhye (sweet rice drink) and gotgam (dried persimmons) in making our tteokbokki sauce. I continue to experiment with my mum regularly, trying to figure out better recipes that are healthy and delicious,” Ha said.

While the taste is not as fiery as that of other tteokbokki, Tteoksan’s dish has a savoury undertone that enhances its appeal. Ha mentioned that as tteokbokki gained global popularity, so did the misconception that it is an overwhelmingly spicy food, which she finds disappointing.

“We don’t use cheongyang red pepper or add capsaicin to the sauce, which many tteokbokki eateries do to make it spicy. (Because we use) natural ingredients, even those afraid of spicy food in Korea can get used to our tteokbokki. With our ingredients, the longer you let the sauce ferment, the milder the taste,” she said

In her quest to learn the roots of tteokbokki and traditional Korean cuisine, Ha has been attending culinary classes at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine for over three years.

Tteok was considered a version of noodles in Korea. I was touched when I learnt that our ancestors used to see the long and thick garaetteok as a symbol of continuing friendship with the person sharing the dish,” she said.

Gungjung tteokbokki, a soya sauce-based tteokbokki thought to be part of the Joseon royal court cuisine, is Ha’s objective for the coming year. Her ultimate aspiration is to open a Tteoksan restaurant in Manhattan, New York in the United States. – Kim Hae-yeon