Tteokbokki (떡볶이): from the royal palaces and onto the streets

Many of us have that moment from childhood that seems to really stick out in our memories. Although we didn’t play catch or build a tree house together like in the North American movies, I do have this one really fond memory I have with my dad back in Korea during my early elementary school days.

On chilly winter nights, as an opportunity to get me to exercise, my dad and I would take a brisk walk around the apartment. Although I came to appreciate the bonding time together, what initially enticed me to get dressed and join him in venturing out was what I’ll be focusing on today’s post: Spicy rice cakes, or tteokbokki (떡볶이 ).

Tteokbooki that my friend had in Korea.

Tteokbokki that my friend had in Korea.

As we talked and walked around town, occasionally with mom and even my younger brother joining us after he became old enough, the highlight of the walk was when we made a stop at the local cart bar (포장마차) that we were regular at. They sold some delicious fish cake soup (odeng soup: 오뎅국) and tteokbokki there. That soft, sweet yet spicy rice cakes fresh off the cart almost melting away inside my mouth… Then some sip of the warm and delicious odeng soup to clear the path, and pop in another spicy rice cake in there…

It was one of the main reasons why I really loved winter back then.

Cart bar in Gimcheon station, Korea

Cart bar (포장마차) in Gimcheon station, Korea

Now days, tteokbokki is a popular dish that can be found everywhere in Korea and loved by the masses. But tracing back history, the non-spicy version called royal court rice cakes (궁중떡볶이) was actually the original tteokbokki, instead of the red coloured sweet-spicy version people think of. And as the name suggests, it was literally a dish served for the king. This version is cooked with beef that was marinated with soy-based sauce and bunch of vegetables, and kings in Chosun dynasty would enjoy this ‘rare dish’ on January (정월, celebrated for being the first month of the year). It was a very high-class dish, something that most commoners would never see it in their life time let alone have a taste.

Royal court tteokbokki

Royal court tteokbokki

The more modern spicy version which most people are familiar with was developed after the Korean War around 1950s, sold by street vendors at first… This segment in history has its share of interesting stories about food, which I’d like to cover in more detail in a different post. The main sauce is red pepper paste (고추장) based, mixed with sugar/honey/starch syrup (물엿) to give it that sweet yet spicy flavour. Many variations exist, including cheese tteokbokki, jjajang tteokbokki (짜장 떡볶이), etc.

It’s pretty amazing how a dish that was once only served for kings, has now become a popularized food for everyone. (Both regular spicy tteokbokki and royal court tteokbokki)

Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a Korean restaurant in Toronto that makes good royal court, jjajang, and/or cheese tteokbokki, but I did find this one place downtown where I really enjoyed their regular spicy tteokbokki. The place is called Miss Korea, which was previously covered in a post by another blogger, but it is just that good that I don’t mind making a second recommendation (for tteokbokki anyways. Other dishes were pretty good as well). A key point of their tteokbokki for me was the deep-fried seaweed roll (김말이) in the dish, which was very reminiscent of the street vendor style tteokbokki which I enjoyed when I went back to Korea few years ago. You have two options for tteokbokki here:

  • Spicy rice cake with pork belly for $12
  • Spicy rice cake with seafood for $14

Or you could get it as part of combo food with drinks, but drinks and eatables (안주) is a separate topic of its own, so I’ll just list the food price for now.

Personally I prefer the pork belly option since I love red meat and it’s cheaper, but you can’t go wrong with the seafood option either. Portion is pretty decent, but since I’m usually sharing it with group of 6-8 friends when we go to Miss Korea, we grab 2 at the table which disappears pretty quickly. By the end of the night, we end up ordering them again once more to a total of 4. Overall I’d give them 4/5 ratings.

Inside Miss Korea restaurant/bar. 687 Yonge St, Toronto

Inside Miss Korea restaurant/bar. 687 Yonge St, Toronto

This goes without saying that I have yet to have a tteokbokki that can outshine the ones I had during my walks with my family back in Korea. Childhood memories and nostalgia are powerful seasoning that’s hard to beat. But I plan to continue my foodie exploration (맛집탐방), and perhaps one day I’ll land a new delicious discovery that can contend against these nostalgic flavours. I will make sure to update any good tteokbokki locations in the comment section if I find something later on.

This concludes today’s posting about tteokbokki. Until my next posting, bon appétit!

Categories: 2014

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