I’m currently in Seoul, visiting my mother’s home country for the first time while working on a story for our November issue. Each day, I try to explore various versions of an iconic dish.

With tteokpokki—a dish of (usually) spicy rice cakes—I’m amazed at how each district or neighborhood has its own unique way of preparing the dish; the variations are vastly different from each other. The rice cakes themselves are roughly finger-shaped sticks of basically compressed rice that are fantastically chewy. For lunch, I tried a version called “jeukseok” tteokpokki, which is cooked tableside in a big pot with ramen and rice noodles, hard-cooked eggs, vegetables, and pieces of fish cake. As the mixture bubbles away, the noodles and rice cakes absorb much of the water, and you’re left with a nice, thick, spicy sauce that coats everything.

For an afternoon snack, I had “gireum” tteokpokki at the wonderful Tongin Market; this version is rice cake with no sauce, just coated in ground chile and stir-fried in oil. It’s crisp on the outside and still chewy inside. Absolute heaven. Yet another version came from a slightly upscale fusion-style restaurant called Song’s Kitchen. There we tried seafood tteokpokki stewed in a fiery chile sauce, cooked inside a pumpkin, and topped with mozzarella cheese.

In a cooking class I attended, I made “royal” tteokpokki, which was not spicy at all, but instead rice cakes cooked with colorful vegetables in a soy sauce–based mixture. How incredible to be able to taste such fantastic flavors and fun takes on one of Korea’s signature dishes. (I’ll be developing some of these recipes for the story, or you can find lots of recipes online.)