Street food in South Korea gives the study of culture through cuisine an intense reception. A deep red hot pepper paste, gochujang, serves as the fiery base of Korean specialties and the essential ingredient stocked throughout Korean kitchens may surprise the most daring global diners with a lesson in heat.
Gochujang adds sweet and spicy flavor to traditional Korean recipes and as Cold Spring’s Clayton Smith explores the land and language, he’s acquiring street food vocabulary and a love for fermented hot sauce.
Clayton is finishing up his junior year at SUNY Geneseo. He’s immersed not only in academics on a study abroad semester, but sampling Korean staples as any student might—from a stream of food trucks and snack carts along bustling South Korean streets.
While receiving exchange credit for coursework at Sogang University, the communication-digital media/journalism major enjoys studying Seoul’s urban food scene.
“Korean cuisine is definitely a perk of being here,” Clayton says. “ There are a lot of great options to choose from, and I find myself eating out a lot because often times the food is quite cheap.”
Korean barbecue, where dining patrons cook meat servings on table-top grills, remains a favorite. Clayton has sampled pork barbecue and he’s experienced Korea’s culture in bulgogi, thinly sliced tender beef marinated in a sweet soy sauce. Classic foods of the country along with global street fare like Turkish kebabs keep up nourishment, but he often orders tteokbokki or ddukboki [dock-bo-kee].
Clayton describes tteokbokki as stir-fried rice cakes prepared in spicy sauce.
“It’s definitely the most popular street food here, and I really enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve heard it described as the ‘the Korean mac and cheese,’ which might be a way to describe the popularity of the dish, but it is hardly comparable. The rice cakes are in the form of thick noodles, making for a really chewy, unusual texture.”
Hearing Clayton’s description of the spicy tteokbokki, I set out to make it. I asked my friend Sung, who puts a gourmet spin on Korean home cooking, to recommend a Korean food market. She sent me to wander among aisles of fine products at Woo-Ri Mart in Northvale, N.J. Not only did I come away with suggestions from supermarket employees on preparing tteokbokki, I even picked up a prepared serving of Clayton’s #1 street food served up at Woo-Ri Mart’s food court. The portion was so generous that I split it with my husband who loves Korean cooking (he lived in Korea before we were married). With every bite, I could appreciate the heat that Clayton savors in ultra spicy meals.
“From what I’ve seen, there is not a choice of sauces. There is one sauce that the dish is cooked in and most would agree that it is very hot,” Clayton said, “although I personally enjoy it.”
I requested help in replicating the sauce from the encouraging merchants at Woo-Ri Mart who directed me to a supply of gochujang. Knowing that the customary 3 kilos would be more than enough to spice up my sauce, I settled for 1 pound of the hot pepper paste packaged in bright red tubs. As I searched for the cylindrical rice cakes, a staffer also directed me to a selection of fish cakes used in tteokbokki, and suggested dried anchovies to flavor the cooking broth for the rice cakes. I opted out of the super-sized box of tiny briny fish and substituted an anchovy-based sauce.
Photo by Clayton Smith
The fishy addition helped cut the peppery pasty sauce and I served the tteokbokki with quail eggs, following Clayton’s recommendation. A cool egg calms a kick while spicy soaked rice cakes make tteokbokki a novel reprieve from typical American food snacks.
Clayton likes the hot flavor and chewy texture of the rice noodles because they’re so different from anything he’s ever eaten. Before returning to the Hudson Valley in July, he’ll take his curiosity and appetite to Thailand and Myanmar, but in the weeks ahead, he’ll practice his vocabulary ordering Korea’s best street food.
3 cups Korean rice cake sticks
3 cups water
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/3 cup gochujang Korean hot pepper paste
½ teaspoon spicy hot pepper flakes
2 tablespoons sugar
1 pound fish cake strips
6 scallions, sliced
4 fresh quail eggs, hard-boiled
- In a shallow pan, heat half of the water and add rice cakes. Soak and simmer over low heat 10 minutes.
- In a small skillet, make a quick stock of remaining water and fish sauce. Boil and reduce to low heat. Add gochujang, hot pepper flakes and sugar. Mix well, bring to a boil and reduce to medium heat. Add drained rice cakes and fish cakes to sauce. Cook over low heat 5 minutes.
- Spoon mixture onto serving plate, top with scallions and serve with egg.
By Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm