Food alleys: Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town
May 15, 2012
One of Korea’s most ubiquitous foods, tteokbokki has a lot more history than one might first imagine. Although now a popular street food snack, tteokbokki is derived from Korean royal court cuisine, and its development over the centuries traces Korea’s history.
Its roots can be traced back to the Joseon Dynasty, with the earliest written mention of the delicacy found in the 19th-century Joseon cookbook Siuijeonseo. It was originally a savory stir-fry made of rice cakes (tteok or garaetteok), meat, vegetables, and mushrooms, and seasoned with soy sauce.
However, in the aftermath of the Korean War, soy sauce was hard to come by, so a new recipe was made featuring the spicy-sweet kick of gochujang. This is when tteokbokki became the delicacy we are familiar with today. Although gochujang tteokbokki can be found at street food carts all across the city, the original restaurant where this spicy rice cake dish can still be found in Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town, a wide alley southeast of Dongdaemun Market.
Rather than a light snack, the local tteokbokki here is treated as a full meal, cooked in large portions at the customer’s table. Also unlike the tteokbokki served from street food carts, this style isn’t as hot, seasoned instead with a combination of gochujang (chili paste) and jajang (black bean sauce).
It is widely believed that this recipe was invented by accident in 1953, when street food vendor Ma Bok-rim accidentally dropped a rice cake into her father-in-law’s jajangmyeon (Chinese noodles with black bean sauce). It tasted better than she expected, and it got her thinking about experimenting with sauces and seasoning. She took a chance selling the new recipe, and soon she upgraded her street stall to a full-fledged restaurant. Her restaurant can still be found near the entrance of Sindang-dong Ttteokbokki Town, adorned with her face and boasting “Since 1953.”
In the 1970s as food shortages eased, the recipe was refined further, and ingredients such as fish cake (eomuk or odaeng), glass noodles, and boiled egg were added.
By the 1980s, Ma’s restaurant was joined by several more tteokbokki establishments with their own variations on her original recipe, and Sindang-dong Ttteokbokki Town was established. Many of the restaurants still have DJ booths, where DJs could spin vinyl records in order to attract customers off the streets. Today, some of the restaurants still maintain a music schedule, most notably I Love Sindang-dong which even offers live music performances.
There are approximately ten tteokbokki restaurants on the street, all with mostly the same menu but each made with a unique recipe. Restaurateurs stand in front of their stores inviting customers inside.
Aprons are available to customers to protect their clothes, as cooking tteokbokki can get messy. The food is cooked right at the table, a preparation method not unlike dishes like budae jjigae (army base stew) and dakgalbi, both postwar delicacies. In the pan is added a combination of garaetteok, sauces, onions, cabbage, fish cakes, egg, mandu (dumplings), and a variety of different noodles. Customers can order more of one ingredient as well, and some restaurants even offer seafood and chicken feet.
Cooking tteokbokki requires attention, as it must be stirred often to prevent the garaetteok from sticking to the pan. It is recommended that the mandu be cut in half to allow sauces to seep in. This is very much removed from street food tteokbokki; the taste is savory rather than hot, and the food is very filling. Once the pan has been emptied, many restaurants offer a combination of rice and seaweed to soak up the last remaining sauces.
Every October, Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town holds an annual tteokbokki festival with various cooking, song, and dance competitions.
In recent years, interest in tteokbokki has increased rapidly. Many new restaurants have opened offering new fusion recipes such as cheese tteokbokki, curry tteokbokki, and carbonara tteokbokki, but Sindang-dong is the place to go to get a more pure taste of the rich history of this delicacy.
To get to Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town, you can take exit 7 from Sindang Station (lines 2 and 6) or exit 1 from Cheonggu Station (lines 5 and 6). Once you find the bus stop, find a way into the alley and you should see the main gate for the street, lined with tteokbokki restaurants.
By Jon Dunbar
Department Global Communication and Contents Division