From May 8 to May 12 I visited Seoul for the first time, mostly to eat as much food as I could and learn about a cuisine I knew little about. On my first night in an attempt to battle jetlag and give me my first gutbusting taste of food on South Korean soil, Dan of food blog Seoul Eats and his friends, including fellow food bloggers Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi and the walking Korean food encyclopedia that is Fat Man Seoul, took me out on a three-eatery night. You know you're with the right crowd when you eat at three places in a row. Dan's friend Rob recommended the following eatery to us, and we're all better for it.
Before going to Seoul, the only version of the popular rice cake-centric dish tteokbokki that I knew of consisted of fat rice cake logs (called garae tteok in Korean) smothered in a sea of spicy and slightly sweet sauce accompanied by fish cakes and vegetables. While I love the soft chewiness of the rice cake, its singular texture in a sauce that I only somewhat like relegated it to, "I'll eat it sometimes," not, "Oh god, I need more," status. To reach the next level, it would also need crunch to give me my beloved, drool-inducing combination of crunch and chew.*
But then I was brought to Hyoja-dong Old Fashioned Tteokbokki in Tongin Market to try an atypical version of tteokbokki, at least compared to most of the tteokbokki you find on the streets of Seoul. This tteokbokki is not simmered in sauce, but marinated and pan fried, and comes in two flavors: a spicy dry-rubbed version, and a non-spicy version lightly seasoned with garlic and soy sauce. The soy sauce version seems to more closely resemble the traditional recipe for tteokbokki which, according to this history of tteokbokki by Dr. Sook-ja Yoon, was stir fried and seasoned with soy sauce, sans spicy ingredients.
The tteok is cooked in a large wok-like griddle with some oil. While the initial oil-slicked pieces are delicious, chewy chunks of lightly seasoned rice cake goodness, the last dregs and their outer golden crusts are the ones you really want (most of our tteokbokki was gone by the time it reached "golden crusty" stage; yes, we were impatient). I liked the non-spicy version more, but non-spicy combined with spicy made a good pair, with one balancing out the other. Give me the "dry" version over the saucy version anytime.
* I'm not the only one, right? Some examples of favorite dishes with crunch and chew: spicy rice cakes from Momofuku Ssam Bar, deep fried sesame balls from Chinese bakeries and dim sum restaurants, crispy rice bits that form at the bottom of a bowl of dolsot bibimbap.
Hyoja-dong Old Fashioned Tteokbokki
Inside Tongin Market Take exit 2 from Gyeongbokgung Station on Line 3, and walk straight. Tongin Market will be on your left. Open late; we were there after 9 p.m.
Thanks to Fat Man Seoul for the tteokbokki information and directions!