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Obsessed with Korean: The Rice Cakes

As a country, we seem to be quite smitten with Korean food—and for good reason. It's anything but subtle, boasting intense flavors ranging from fiery to potently garlicky to fermenty-funky to salty-sweet … or some glorious combination of all the above. Here, an exploration of some of the defining dishes from this burgeoning cuisine. 

Let's talk about rice cakes for just a minute. Not the crunchy diet-food snack, but Korean rice cakes—wonderfully chewy "cakes" made from basically compressed rice. That texture is absolutely addictive; they are just fantastically chewy, and I love, love, love, LOVE them. You'll see two main forms: Tteokbokki are like cylinders, often thumb-sized (they look a little like half a piece of string cheese), though you can find longer forms that you typically cut to the size you like; sliced rice cakes, often labeled "rice ovalettes," are thin, flat discs of rice cakes. With either version, you boil them quickly (similar to vacuum-packed gnocchi) till they float, then drain and toss with sauce or into soups.

A food vendor making tteokbokki in Tongin Market, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Lauryn Ishak.

In Korea, you'll often find tteokbokki on street food carts, swimming in a sweet-spicy sauce that's basically a combination of gochujang and corn syrup. It's mighty delicious but not necessarily what I want to eat all the time. But in Seoul, I had a wonderful version of tteokbokki at one particular market, Tongin Market, that was different, and the best I've ever had. It was a dry, not swimming in sauce but rather wok-seared with Korean chile powder (gochugaru). Above is a photo showing the version I had in Seoul. Below is my rendition of it.

My re-created version of Tongin Market Tteokbokki

Sliced rice cakes work beautifully in soups and stir-fries, and make for a great Korean version of chicken and dumplings.

D'uk Gook, which is basically Korean chicken and dumplings

Is it worth it to go to a Korean market or order these ingredients online? Absolutely YES, it is. When I have people try these rice cakes, they always say they've never had anything quite like them before and that they are now hooked and haunted by them. Give them a try—you can toss them into any stir-fry you like, as I did below.

Korean sliced rice cakes in a stir-fry of ground pork, broccolini, dried chiles, soy sauce, and sesame oil

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