One of the things I love about Seoul is that there is street food to be found in almost any corner of the city at almost any hour. Pojangmacha or “covered wagons” are typically unlicensed restaurants that spring up in back alleys and empty lots. I once went to one that you entered quite literally from a hole in a wall, behind which was a vast city of street vendors, covered in tarps with plastic stools and tables.
While street vendor sanitization can be questionable (they don’t have running water afterall), they do seem to make an effort to be clean, covering their plates in disposable plastic bags which they toss out after you’re done. Besides, everything is typically fried or boiled and they’re crimson with bacteria fighting chili peppers(capsaicin has antibacterial properties). If that’s not enough to convince you, these places also dispense bottles of 48 proof Soju to wash it all down with. Oh, and did I mention the food is delicious?
Some neighborhoods have specialties, but most have basics like, kimbap (rice rolled in nori), odeng (korean oden), and various anju (bar snacks). Then of course there is the ubiquitous Tteokbokki. At its simplest it’s a snack consisting of garae tteok (Korean rice cakes similar to mochi), fishcake and large scallions that have been cooked in chili paste and odeng broth, but some places add eggs, veggies and even noodles, making it a more complete meal.
Tteokbokki was originally a stir-fried dish consisting of meat, veggies and garae tteok seasoned with soy sauce, but over the past half century an interesting thing happened. A clever vendor started offering it seasoned with spicy Gochujang and odeng, a fishcake dish of Japanese origin that’s another popular pojangmacha offering. The resulting dish, with thick chewy tteok covered in the red hot, slightly sweet sauce was a run-away hit and soon everyone was making it.
For my version, I tried to recreate the modern classic as faithfully as I could. L, who is always quick to point out that my renditions of Korean food “taste Japanese”, said that it tastes just like her favourite stall in Seoul and that it made her homesick (I later caught her listening to k-pop). I can’t think think of any higher praise:-)
- Soak the tteok in warm water for about an hour then drain.
- In a large flat bottomed pan or skillet whisk the broth, water, gochujang, pepper, honey, sesame oil and garlic together. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Cook for an additional 7-10 minutes or until the tteok are soft and the broth has reduced and thickened slightly.
- Bring the whole pan to the table so everyone can pick out the bits they like best. You can also optionally cook this at the table on a table top burner.
Gochujang is a spicy Korean condiment that's made from fermented soy beans, glutinous rice flour and chili peppers. It's a blood red paste that typically comes in jars or plastic tubs and has a unique flavour that you really can't substitute with anything else. This should be widely available at almost any Asian grocery store.
Daepa are a type of scallion that are much longer and thicker than normal scallions, but they're not quite as fat as leeks. You should be able to find them in Korean markets as well as Japanese groceries where they go by the name of Tokyo Negi. If you can't find them, 3 regular scallions will work just fine.
Garae tteok are cylindrical rice cakes, similar to mochi, but they are much more dense and will retain their shape even after cooking for some length. Unfortunately there really isn't a substitute (mochi will have a much softer texture), if you have an Asian or Korean grocery near you they carry it.