The Evolution of Korea's Favorite Snack Tteokbokki

  • By Yeon Dana

    July 16, 2010 13:25

    Tteokbokki, the beloved Korean dish made of rice cakes and spicy chili paste, sounds all too formal when labeled "stir-fried rice pasta cooked in red chili sauce." To most Koreans, tteokbokki evokes a warm, homely feeling of childhood, when it was most likely their favorite dish.

    Occupying a special corner in every Korean's heart as one of the most affordable and tasty snacks, tteokbokki appeared in its modern form 57 years ago.

    Before then it was cooked entirely differently. According to a Chosun Dynasty cookbook, tteokbokki was originally a mild dish flavored with soy sauce and made with the addition of beef, and fresh or dried vegetables. It was usually eaten by the upper class, including the royal court. According to Prof. Han Bok-ryeo of the Institute of Royal Court Cuisine, "Spicy food can easily upset people's composure, so it was always a rule of royal courts to avoid serving spicy food to the king." 

    But a drastic change came in 1953, when Ma Bok-rim of Seoul's Sindang-dong neighborhood reinvented tteokbokki by adding spicy chili paste. It instantly captured the hearts of the masses who, after the devastating Korean War, wanted affordable food. Tteokbokki as we know it now was born.

    It was further transformed in the 1970s when ingredients such as chewy fish cakes, clear noodles, boiled eggs and spring onion were added. In the 1980s, tteokbokki gained a foothold in the instant food market by appearing on the shelves of supermarkets. In 2000s, it further evolved by appearing in fusion forms, blending western flavors with traditional Korean ones.

    As tteokbokki continues to make strides and develop global appeal, it is now served even in upscale fusion restaurants. Its popularity here can be attributed to the fact that it has been continuously transformed to match changing tastes, proving the dish's potential to become an international success.

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