Korea’s Spicy Hot Seoul Food
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s the Korean street version of mac ’n’ cheese.
By Carl Pettit
When it comes to Korean Seoul food — and Korean street eats in general — very few compare to spicy ddeokbokki (떡볶이) as comfort food. These glutinous, tubular-shaped rice sticks, typically slathered with a flaming-hot gochujang (fermented red chili paste)–based sauce, are a culinary crowd-pleaser among Korean children and adults alike.
This sloppy-looking dish’s sweltering, chewy goodness is a delight. And like the best comfort foods, it invokes childhood nostalgia for those lucky enough to grow up gobbling it down. It’s akin to how an American might feel about mac ’n’ cheese from a box — powdered cheese and all. Comedian Margaret Cho describes ddeokbokki as “giant spaghetti drowned in sweet and spicy ketchup.” Her mother made the dish, alternately spelled tteokbokki, only on special occasions, because “it’s fattening and we were always on a diet,” she explains, plus the “carb count on the rice sticks is astronomical.”
“ … a bubbling hot cauldron of thick, fiery red sauce with strange shapes protruding like sinking battleships.”
The traditional dish evolved from “royal court” gungjung ddeokbokki, a savory gourmet version enjoyed by the upper echelons of Korean society back in the day. But with the introduction of hot peppers in Korea and the invention of gochujang, the culinary heat was turned up. Koreans will put gochujang on just about everything. I’ve even noticed families lugging jars of the stuff around while traveling abroad — just in case they’re caught without a steady supply, I guess.
While ddeokbokki is prepared in homes and restaurants, the sloppy street versions ladled out by vendors on the side of the road are my favorite. The first one I tried was actually in Beijing, in a rickety little shack of a restaurant run by a family belonging to the Korean ethnic minority living in China. After you’re handed that bowl or tray of sticky rice logs and fish cakes, which will run you about 3,000 Korean won (around $2.50), all you have to do is spear them with toothpicks and stuff them into your gob. Which makes for easy eating, especially for the inebriated crowds you’ll find chowing down en masse late at night.
Still, it’s not a dish for the faint of palate. Chef Judy Joo, host of the TV show Korean Food Made Simple, describes ddeokbokki as “a bubbling hot cauldron of thick, fiery red sauce with strange shapes protruding like sinking battleships,” and warns that eating it takes “a bit of a bold appetite,” especially for the uninitiated. She’s seen the dish evolve from simple rice cakes and gochujang to “everything from dumplings, noodles, eggs, cheese and sausages.” Ingredients like canned tuna and Spam can even be chucked into the mix. Her version, Ra-bokki, uses ramen noodles.
My go-to is the standard dddeokbokki with fried rice sticks, fish cakes and a boiled egg, although I also like ’em served on skewers (tteok-kochi). It’s high on the comfort-food index, although pretty high on the calorie index as well. Such is the price we pay for delicious, satisfying food.