28 Dec 2016

The Story of Ddeokbokki- From the King’s Table to Everyday Favorite

The iconic ddeokbokki in which rice cakes are simmered in a spicy-sweet sauce has become a ubiquitous dish in Korea that ranks among the most popular for locals and a growing following abroad. While it’s more associated as a snack today, the dish was originally meant for the wealthy and elite and bore little resemblance to the fiery red food you mostly come across today.

Here’s a look at how this addictive dish came to be as well as some iconic places you can try modern day variations of it around Seoul.
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Ddeokbokki’s Beginning as a Royal Dish

Goongjoong Ddeokbokki was a dish that was eaten by members of royalty and the elite

Goongjoong Ddeokbokki was a dish that was eaten by members of royalty and the elite

No one’s quite certain whenc was first made but records of the dish’s early forms appear as far back as the 17th century. Interestingly, the dish’s base back then wasn’t gochujang (red pepper paste) as is most commonly used today (chili peppers itself were only introduced to Korea in the late 16th century). Instead, records show the dish had rice cakes either braised, simmered, or fried with other ingredients such as thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, and other vegetables with seasonings such as ginger, sesame seeds, soy sauce, etc and then topped with sliced roasted seaweed sheets, egg slices (yolk and whites cooked separately), and more. It was a laborious dish that took time and effort and was said to be a favorite in the royal palace as well as among the elite. This version is known today as ‘goongjoong ddeokbokki’ (궁중떡볶이) or, literally, ‘royal palace ddeokbokki’ and is a non-spicy, sweet, and savory version which those who are averse to spicy flavors can enjoy.

From a Dish For Kings to a Dish for Everyone

Because goongjoong ddeokbokki included many ingredients that were difficult for ordinary commoners at the time to obtain and was so meticulously prepared, it was a dish that few outside Korea’s most upper circles could enjoy. Its coveted status rang true to even the first half of the 20th century as reflected in a 1930 gayo song by Park Hyeong Lim which includes the cheeky lyrics, “[obba] eats the bulgogi ddeokbokki alone and gives me the pickled cucumbers and soybean sprouts.”

So when did the ddeeokbokki turn into the spicier, everyday food we know today? No one knows for certain but many attribute it to Ma Bok Rim who owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in the early 1950s. She is said to have accidentally dropped some long rice cakes into some jajang (black bean sauce from which jajangmyeon is based on) and then got the idea to mix flour-based rice cakes with gochujang and chunjang and sell them. It became a hit with the locals and the dish quickly spread in popularity and recognition, so much so that she inspired copycats and even an entire ddeokbokki “town” around her in Seoul’s Sindangdong.

The late Ma Bok Rim who is considered the "mother" of modern day ddeokbokki as we know today.

The late Ma Bok Rim who is considered the “mother” of modern day ddeokbokki as we know today.

Since then, other variations have followed with the sauce, ingredients, and rice cake base (rice or flour) shifting and changing to reflect new trends and tastes. The varieties offered today are staggering from made-to-order tabletop ddeokbokkis to street side ddeokbokkis and even fusion variations such as carbonara ddeokbokki, cheese ddeokbokki, curry ddeokbokki, and more. But the variation that has cemented its status today as the most representative is the spicy-sweet, gochujang based ddeokbokki.  From mom-and-pop shops to major ddeokbokki chains, you’re almost never seemingly a kilometer away in any Korean town or city from a ddeokbokki shop with bubbling vats and pans of this irresistible dish ready for consumption.

Where to Eat Ddeokbokki in Seoul today

Today there are thousands of ddeokbokki restaurants and eateries all across Korea which offers this popular dish. Its versatility to be eaten as a meal or as a street snack is part of its mainstream appeal and questions over where the best ddeokbokki is found often leads to heated debate among friends and family members.  As much of the “mainstream” ddeokbokki we know today is considered rooted in Seoul and the vicinity, here are some popular, long-running ddeokbokki institutions in the capital, each with their own unique appeal.

1. Ma Bok Rim Ddeokbokki ( 마복림 떡볶이)

Ma Bok Rim Ddeokbokki

Ma Bok Rim Ddeokbokki

서울특별시 중구 신당동 292-112

292-112, Sindang-dong, Junggu-, Seoul

The ‘grandmother’ of ddeokbokki, Ma Bok Rim is attributed with creating the first spicy-sweet variation of ddeokbokki that is most commonly known today. The ddeokbokki is cooked at your table with the addition of ingredients such as ramen noodles, fish cakes, mandu, and more to create a delicious bubbling concoction. And though the matriarch herself unfortunately passed away in 2011, her recipe was passed on to her sons and her first, second, third, and fifth sons all operate their own “Ma Bok Rim Ddeokbokki” within the same vicinity, using her tried and true recipe.

2. Wonjo Halmuni Ddeokbokki (원조 할머니 떡볶이)

서울 종로구 통인동 94

94, Tongin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Gireum ddeokbokki from Tongin Market

Gireum ddeokbokki from Tongin Market

For a different take on ddeokbokki with a long history, head to Tong-in Market just west of Gyeongbok Palace where you can try gireum ddeokbokki. No spoons are required here as there’s no soup and instead rice cakes are cooked on a hot metal pan with just oil and either soy sauce or red pepper flakes to create this simple snack. You won’t find any fish cakes, vegetables, or even gochujang in the ddeokbokki here, which catches many who are accustomed to the thick soupy ddeokbokki off guard. On first taste, the gireum ddeokbokki may seem rather plain but there’s a unique merit to it that makes you think of it afterwards- as attested by the fact the place has been in operation since the 70s and sparked a few other rivals in the same market.

3. Jinmi Ddeokbokki (진미 떡볶이)

Jinmi Ddeokbokki

Jinmi Ddeokbokki

서울 중구 신당동 291-29

291-29 Sindang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul

The ddeokbokki here breaks all stereotypes that ddeokbokki must come in red. Here, the famed ddeokbokk is a brownish-black that reminds one of the popular jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles). Sweet, savory, and salty, Jinmi’s ddeokbokki is often wrongly assumed to be based on chunjang (which is the base of jjajangmyeon) but not even a bit of it goes into the dish here. Instead, the homemade gochujang is mixed with soy sauce to create this uniquely flavored ddeokbokki. The rice cakes here are also different in that they are made with both rice and flour to create extra soft rice cakes that absorbs the creative sauce better.

4. Golmok Ddeokbokki (골목 떡볶이)

서울 송파구 문정동 44

44, Munjeongdong, Songpa-gu, Seoul

Golmok Ddeokbokki

Golmok Ddeokbokki

On the opposite end of the spectrum from gireum ddeokbokki, Golmok Ddeokbokki is known for their extra soupy ddeokbokki which particularly has fervent fans from those who imbibed from the soju bottle a little too much from the night before. Only peeks of the fish cakes and rice cakes poke out from the thick red soup which patrons love to slurp down.

The secret in the lauded “soup” comes from dried radish strips which are boiled and added to the ddeokbokki to make an extra dimensional soup. The extra liquid makes it a perfect sauce and/or dip for other items on the menu that pair well such as crispy fried mandu, soondae, and fish cakes.

Make Your Own Ddeokbokki!
If you’re feeling up for a bit of challenge, making ddeokbokki at home isn’t so difficult especially if you have a lot of Korean ingredients on hand. The best part of making it at home is that you can adjust the spice levels as well as add and omit ingredients to your liking. From ramen noodles and sausages to chopped vegetables and hard boiled eggs, just about anything is fair game to join your pot of ddeokbokki. Try having a ddeokbokki party for you and some friends at home!

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