What Is Ddukbokki? A Dish Fit for Kings, My Dad’s Birthday and Me on a Weeknight
Plus, two ways to prepare the dish — do you prefer savory or spicy?
Ddukbokki (also spelled tteokbokki) is the ultimate Korean soul food — or “Seoul” food, if you’re feeling a little punny. These days, “ddukbokki” most often refers to spicy stir-fried rice cakes: pleasantly chewy logs smothered in a fiery red, gochujang-based sauce, often accompanied by sliced fishcakes or crunchy vegetables, dotted with scallions and sesame seeds, and topped with an egg. The rice cakes are a textural sensation — like noodles if they stayed al dente with every bite — and the sauce is just hot enough to warm you to your core, but just sweet enough to make you crave some more.
It’s commonly found at street food stalls or bunsik shops peppered all throughout Korea’s neighborhoods, granting hungry citizens easy access at any time of day. Stateside, it's been popping up at Korean food courts, pubs and even at local corner shops — I feel lucky to be able to pick up some at the Korean-owned bodega down the street from my Brooklyn apartment on a late night whim.
Koreans’ love for ddukbokki starts at school age, when they share plates of saucy sticks amongst friends after class at the local neighborhood snack shop, and further blossoms as they enter drinking age, when ddukbokki becomes a popular anju, or drinking food. It’s almost like Americans’ mac n' cheese — a forever comfort food.
Putting the Dduk in Ddukbokki
Though the stir-fried dish is the most common these days, ddukbokki actually refers to the broader class of rice cake dishes. Dduk (also romanized as "tteok") are Korean rice cakes usually made with steamed rice flour that is pounded, shaped and cut into shapes. The term “dduk” is used to refer to a wide variety of rice cakes, in both sweet and savory preparations. The dduk used in ddukbokki are plain white rice cakes commonly found in one of two shapes: long thin logs typically used in ddukbokki, or flat oval discs used for ddukguk (rice cake soup). The discs can be used interchangeably in ddukbokki in a pinch.
How to Shop for Dduk
Dduk can easily be found at most Korean or Asian grocery stores, a testament to their growing popularity. Most generic dduk is a mixture of wheat flour and glutinous rice flour, but it’s also common to find ones made purely of glutinous rice flour, plain rice flour, or now, all wheat flour for an extra toothsome texture. I recommend you try different kinds to find the textural components you enjoy most, depending on the types of dishes or ddukbokki you are making.
How to Store Dduk
Dduk keeps for a surprisingly long time in the fridge — while package directions usually recommend a week, I’ve had no problem storing them for upwards of two months. You can also store dduk in the freezer, but this can cause certain types to lose their elasticity and begin to separate or disintegrate when cooked.
How to Prep Dduk for Cooking
Prior to cooking, I recommend soaking dduk in cold water for 10 to 30 minutes; this will allow you to break up the individual logs and prep them for stir frying. In a pinch, a quick rinse will get rid of the preservative alcohol flavors, but you’ll also likely need to cook for longer and use more water in your sauce.
The Original Ddukbokki, Fit for Kings
While the spicy variety of ddukbokki is most popular amongst today’s Koreans, gungjung ddokbokki predates it by hundreds of years. Gungjung ddukbokki, translating to “royal court rice cakes”, is a soy sauce-based stir-fried dduk dish that dates back to the 19th century Joseon dynasty, usually featuring meat and an assorted variety of colored vegetables. It was more like a dduk based japchae, served at banquets or celebrations. Gungjung ddukbokki is still popular today, often found at restaurants specializing in royal court cuisine, but it’s also been simplified into soy sauce ddukbokki, one of my mother’s specialities.
As a kid, I spent all my summers in Korea eating plenty of spicy ddukbokki — it was usually one of our first meals arriving at the airport, and an easy meal for my mother to feed her two young daughters on the fly as she took us around the streets of Seoul. Back in America, my mother never cooked ddukbokki, except once a year when she hosted family for my dad’s birthday party. I looked forward to this every year, since her soy sauce ddukbokki was indeed a food fit for a celebration. She stir fried beef, dduk, bell pepper, and onion in soy sauce until they came together in a wonderfully savory, umami-rich concoction. Under the guise of helping her in the kitchen, I would find excuses to sneak bites until the guests arrived (or I got caught).
Spicy Ddukbokki — The Mistake That Became a Hit
Spicy ddukbokki was popularized shortly after the Korean War, when Korea was experiencing a significant rice shortage. The government pushed wheat based products, including a new type of dduk supplemented with flour (instead of pure rice). Actress-turned-restaurant owner Ma Bok-lim invented the dish in 1953 after accidentally dropping some rice cakes in the jjajangmyun she was making at her Korean-Chinese restaurant. This led her to develop the spicier gochujang-based rice cake dish and start a small shop next door based around the concept. Spicy ddukbokki was an instant hit, and lines formed around the block. Word spread quickly, and soon ddukbokki could be found on every street corner.
"Rosé Ddukbokki" and Beyond
These days, ddukbokki is incredibly accessible. Alongside the packaged dduk at Asian grocery stores, you can find readymade packages that can be prepared in minutes in the microwave or on the stovetop. The ddukbokki flavor options have been growing as well, giving rise to new trends like rosé ddukbokki (a creamy gochujang sauce), jjajang ddukbokki (a riff on the aforementioned jjajangmyun), and curry ddukbokki. Ddukbokki can be endlessly adaptable — dduk itself is just like pasta or noodle, after all. Try it for an easy weeknight meal, using any vegetables or meats you might have on hand. Now you just have to choose, savory or spicy?