Korea Move: A Search for Seoul Food
Cleo Gravett scours Seoul for a little culinary adventure and finds the foodstuff which keeps South Korea on the move.
In every national cuisine, there’s a quiet hero. Reliable, prolific, delicious. In England, it may be the bag of chips, or the tasty, flaky pie. In France, it may be the wedge of seeping brie or the hunk of baguette. In Korea, it’s the humble, yet sensational tteokbokki.
Tteokbokki is duplicitously simple: thick rice cakes (the chewy, glutinous ones, cast Snack-A-Jacks from your mind) in a delicious sauce. But the variations of the recipe, and even the spelling of the dish itself, are almost endless. It’s nigh on impossible to describe tteokbokki as a singular because there are infinite types with infinite name variations, and no two that you get from different vendors will include the same elements in the exact same way. That being said, it’s usually served with fish cakes (thin sheets of fish and flour, rather than the breaded patties you’d get in Sainsbury’s) and fried side dishes of prawn, dumplings, vegetable pancakes and sundae (a blood sausage cousin of black pudding).
The type of sauce that your tteok swim in depends on where you get it from — some are smoky-sweet, some use gochujang (the infamous Korean red pepper paste) and are a spicy, angry, neon red. You can get them in a healthier curry sauce or even, at the other end of the taste spectrum, a delicious cream sauce. Topping variations include seafood, fried boiled eggs, garlic slices, noodles, beef strips, and the hangover favourite, a warm, melted cloak of mozzarella.
Once a working-class dish, rice tteok rose in popularity as the South Korean economy developed.
What you see is what you get when you see the word tteokbokki on a menu or a marquee: 떡 (tteok, “rice cake”) and 볶이 (bokki, “stir-fried”). The first record of tteokbokki appears in Siuijeonseo, a 19th century cookbook, though it is believed that the spicy, gochujang-based variant of tteokbokki (which has become the most common variant due to its popularity with young people) first appeared in the 1950s. Once a working-class dish, rice tteok rose in popularity as the South Korean economy developed in the 1980s.
In Sindang-dong, right in the heart of Seoul, lies “Tteokbokki Town”, where every restaurant claims to be the creator of the dish…
They can be high-end (I had some mixed with kale at a fancy rooftop bar), they can be cheap (in convenience stores for as little as 1500 won or roughly £1) and almost every Korean I have asked about their favourite food has given tteokbokki as their answer. In Sindang-dong, right in the heart of Seoul, lies “Tteokbokki Town”, where every restaurant claims to be the creator of the dish, and Daegu even boasts a tteokbokki museum. Tteokbokki chains such as Dooki offer cheap, highly personalised “all you can eat” buffets, which remain a popular destination for mukbangs (look those up for yourself if you feel like going down a Youtube rabbithole).
My favourite tteokbokki is served piping hot by the lovely old lady at a stall outside exit two of Hongik University subway station, where you can sit and eat it on the outskirts of the frying pan, pasting a soy garlicky sauce on your side dishes with a brush, or take it to go in a little black plastic bag puffing with steam.
I’m aware that my intense love for tteokbokki is basic, like if I came to Britain and went nuts over a jacket potato, but I just don’t care…
In Seoul, there’s a huge culture of socialising through eating out, exacerbated by the eye-watering expense of fresh groceries. As a capital city, you can find most types of cuisines to takeaway easily enough, though naturally pricing is dependent on relative distance from Korea itself, and as it’s the opposite side of the world, what I’m used to back in the UK is turned on its head. Korean food is the cheapest, and ramen and sushi from neighbouring Japan cost next to nothing, but if you want a decent pasta dish or a greasy pizza, you should be prepared to take out another student loan. I got far too excited to see Bangers and Mash on the menu at a trendy bar I went to — take that, haters who say that British cuisine can’t compete on an international stage.
But back to tteokbokki. I’m aware that my intense love for tteokbokki is basic, like if I came to Britain and went nuts over a jacket potato, but I just don’t care. Voted the number one comfort food to lift spirits by Korean people during the pandemic, these saucy little bites of joy are a godsend on colder days, and I know I’ll miss them sorely when I’m back in Exeter.
Editor: Ryan Gerrett