Do you love mac & cheese? What about spaghetti and meat sauce? Combine them, take a stroll up the Scoville scale, and you sorta end up with tteokbokki.
At least that’s what I think after making it for myself. It now resides in my brain-space somewhere in the same vicinity as those other two familiar dishes, yet entirely in its own category as well.
I had been surprised that tteokbokki caught on in the U.S.
It has it’s own actually popular hashtag. After revisiting this dish, I totally get it. It’s comfort food, and who loves comfort food more than Americans? nobody!
First, I guess I’m assuming you know what tteokbokki is. Just in case: it’s a kind of Korean street food (with a bunch of variations), but it always has rice cakes and a savory, spicy, slightly sweet sauce. So, um, super carb-y, saucy, and easy to eat.Of course, I called my mom to get her take on tteokbokki. I wasn’t expecting her to be so reticent, even if it was only for a half-second. She thought it was funny I was making street food, and was kind of wondering what could have possessed me. And that’s when I realized that I was asking about junk food.
I’m gonna take a step way back now.
I always thought the concept of “kids’ food” in America was strange because it was so (sometimes painfully and always personally) obvious to me that not all kids grow up with sugary cereal, chicken fingers, and tater tots. I could see straight away that it was a construct, and how funny that everyone was so convinced that their kids would only eat that stuff when they were being fussy. Who do you think taught them to like that crap? You. There are other ways (but I digress, that was for dietitian me).
So anyway, what I can admit to myself now is that I grew up with comfort food too, and it was stuff like tteokbokki, which, now that I think about it, was more of a grandma dish than a mom dish, so it makes sense why my mom was a little confused.
My grandma would make us all the treats. And it was always special because we didn’t eat it all the time.
Like flame-roasted gim (seaweed) that had been brushed with oil and salted. These were my “chips.” My grandma would – I remember because it was mesmerizing – fan large sheets of seaweed over the stove top, back and forth, barely touching, over and over again, until it was just right. She would also make us ramyun every once in awhile (instant noodles, but better because she’d add veggies and maybe an egg). These are my “kids’ foods,” my junk food.
OK, I’m back. />
Back to today, where my mom was at a loss with how to help me. No strong opinions. Sensing my neediness, she started in on some ideas. She said Koreans like a lot of fishcakes in this dish. She also said bulgogi (beef) would be ok. And for the bulgogi, she said to use yangyang (or yamyang?) marinade; saving some for later, to cook with.
I’m just gonna stop here to say I was taking furious mental notes, and she sounded super sure that I knew exactly what that was (yes, of course, yamyaang…), that I think maybe I convinced myself of the same.
I had no idea.
But if it was such common knowledge, surely I could look it up. Romanization being what it is, I spelled it in such a way (ok, ways) that I could not figure out what it was.
I looked through several of my cookbooks until I found it! And when I finally found the sauce that sounded close enough to the right spelling, and read its description – yes! – that was familiar. Super familiar! And for the record, it’s Romanized like this: “yangnyeom.” And, like everything else, there are variations, but seems the base is an only-slightly fancied-up dipping soy sauce with a little sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic, scallions, maybe some red chili flakes or black pepper. Yes, yes, this is very common. This is yangnyeom ganjang to be more specific, which is different yangnyeom gangjang gejang, which is marinated crabs. Small, but important difference. Won’t (can’t) get into it now.
OK, so she said to cook the marinated meat, add some fresh marinade (as in, not the stuff pooled at the bottom of the marinating bowl — bad food safety juju), then add the rice cakes until they are warmed through, dunzo. She told me that this way the dish tastes cleaner because there’s no gochujang (which is commonly used). By the way, she doesn’t mean “clean” in, like, a crazy goop “clean eating” kind of way.
She went on to say you could stack rice cakes, meat, mushrooms, carrots, and more on a skewer, sort of like a kebab. This would be more decorative, and labor-intensive and nice to look at. My mom is kind of like that. It’s endearing.
Well, here’s the punchline. I didn’t do any of that.
I went grocery shopping (in K-town, which is too far to just run out to pick something up) BEFORE I spoke with her. I thought I had skimmed enough of various recipes to get a sense of what I needed.
Anyway, I forgot to (didn’t want to) buy fish cakes because I had a memory of having it with meat. But for some reason I got ground meat, which isn’t right either. And because I couldn’t remember if it was beef or pork, I got both. And I didn’t have carrots, though I had picked up some pretty enoki mushrooms on a whim.
So as my mom finished talking (and I was mentally going through what ingredients I DID have), she gave a little squeak is if to vocally throw up her hands a little, and said, “you can put in whatever you want, cooking is creating!” Perfect timing. So with that advice in hand, I used my unsanctioned ingredients and made a kids meal.
Some tricky tteokbokki mis en place
This recipe calls for large dried anchovies. Not being a connoisseur, I used context clues at the Korean grocery store. I saw some that said they were small/baby anchovies, so I got the other ones. They were to be gutted, heads removed (I hear these things can make the sauce bitter). They’re about 4” long, by the way. Heads on. Freaked me out a little.
[Aside: I used to love shrimp as a little girl. Then I saw their heads one day and couldn’t eat shrimp anymore. But then I went to dance camp in Herrang, Sweden and we had a crayfish party for all the instructors, and there was anise vodka, and lots of removing of heads, and I got used to it. And more recently, I have learned to love whole lobster. So I channeled my inner lobster eater, and got to work.]
At first I thought I was being tasked with something like performing brain surgery on a flea. But, it’s easy, actually. I removed the head (I admit, I wouldn’t have minded plastic gloves for this part, but I’d already started, so I kept going). Then I took a paring knife down one of the long edges – just enough so I could split it in two, longways. From there, it was easy to see and remove the insides.
The first one was the hardest. It wasn’t so bad after that. Plus, because they were dried, the ‘guts’ are not gooey or hard to identify (my two main concerns); they are dried and in a neat bundle, and you simply flick them off. They’re really the only thing in there.
Notes on the “cheesy” nature of tteokbokki
I accidentally found out it’s awesome to let it rest to thicken and get gooey in a good way. Adding enoki mushrooms just at the end, also off the heat, totally works. It doesn’t take more than five minutes (or however long it took me to take my pictures). The rice cake will soak up all the sauce and make it weirdly creamy. Like mac and cheese creamy. Plus the enoki mushrooms nearly melt into threads, so it even feels like lifting gooey cheese with my chopsticks.
[Aside: I am aware that people, even (especially?) trendy Korean chefs, put cheese in Korean food. I do not think I will go there. One, it gives me a stomach ache. Two, I remember a story my dad told about being evacuated to Pusan with his family during wartime, and how large cans of cheese were prized because they came from America. He ate it up. He didn’t know it was cheap cheese-like goo-product. Sucks when some place you think has all the good stuff gives you something so shitty. And then he had all these digestive issues after that, and had his appendix removed. No idea if any of that was related, but it turned him off that processed cheese. So… Anyway, people can put cheese in their K-food, but I wont.]
It was eaten with gusto
Fred liked it, and I liked it. We ate it for two days straight. And though it had a kick, the spice was nice and not too spicy (his words!).
- 7 large dried anchovies, head and guts removed
- 4 cups water
- 1 6x8" piece of dashima (dried kelp)
- ⅓ cup gochujang (Korean red chili paste)
- 1 Tbsp gochugaru (Korean coarse ground chili flakes)
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1.5 lb ground meat (half beef, half pork)
- 1 lb rice cakes, fresh, ½ inch diameter, cut in 3" tubes (if frozen, soak in water for 20-30 minutes before use)
- 1 bunch enoki mushrooms, trimmed, rinsed, and dried
- 3 green onions, thinly sliced, green and white parts separated
- Make the broth. In a large pot or high-walled skillet, combine water, anchovies, and dashima over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes or until reduced to about two-thirds its original volume (2.5 cups). Strain into a bowl and reserve broth; discard the anchovies and dashima. Return the broth to the pot.
- Cook the meat. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the ground meat until thoroughly cooked. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside somewhere warm (it can stay on the stove in the skillet).
- Make the red sauce. In a medium bowl, whisk together the gochujang, gochugaru, and sugar.
- Reheat the stock (in the large pot) over medium-high heat. Add the red sauce, tteok, and cooked meat. Stir only occasionally for about 10 minutes, or until the stock thickens into a creamy sauce. Rice cakes should be soft but still chewy.
- Remove from heat and stir in green onion whites and enoki mushrooms.
- Let rest for 5 minutes.
- Divide among 6 to 8 plates, garnish with green onion greens, and enjoy!