When my father was a child in Korea, he would frequently accompany my grandma to their neighborhood bangatgan. The sweet rice flour was placed aside for her to use as she pleased, but the bangatgan staff would take the maepssal Garu (wet rice flour), steam it for about 30 minutes, and run it through an extruder two or three times. As coils of pillow-like ddeok slithered into a cold-water bath, they were cut into short sections of cylindrical, smooth rope and laid in rows. This ddeok, known as garaeddeok, is chewy, nearly sticky, and sweet, and my father would eat on a piece while walking home with my grandma, carrying their sweet rice flour and garaeddeok.
Over the next several days, the family would eat my grandmother’s ddeokbokki (stir-fried ddeok) and ddeokguk (rice cake soup)—or simply snack on plain ddeok sprinkled with sugar.
Ddeok, also known as Korean rice cakes, is an essential part of Korea’s rich cuisine and a centuries-old meal. Its first historical mention was in texts relating to Korean-Chinese wars circa 500 BC when ddeok was a ceremonial delicacy reserved for the elite class. As rice production increased in Korea, ddeok began to be consumed by people of all social strata, altered as needed to their circumstances.
Despite its ancient history, ddeok cooking has evolved dramatically in the previous several decades as Korea rapidly industrialized following the war. Garaeddeok is now created in factories for simple shipping to frozen sections of Asian markets all over the world, therefore the traditional bangatgans of my father’s childhood are fading. Some ddeok is best eaten fresh, while others are saved for special occasions, such as Chuseok, the autumn harvest moon festival when Koreans consume songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes filled with a sweet paste, and typically cooked over pine needles. Tall, multicolored rice cakes are commonly seen at one-year celebrations for babies.
Traditional ddeokbokki, according to Stephanie Bender, who owns the pop-up Seoul Chikin in Atlanta, is dependent on two factors: the quality of the ddeok and the sauce. Her preferred ddeokbokki is the simple street kind she ate while living in Korea for 10 years: a plastic bag of ddeok slathered in sauce, with no fish cakes, cabbage, or anything else. “You open it, and it’s really chewy, fresh ddeok with the gochujang sauce they prepared with it,” she explains over Zoom. There is nothing else. It’s quite simple, and you eat it with a toothpick.”
Bender attempts to recreate this street food feel at her pop-up, where she employs ddeok in a variety of dishes, from ddeokbokki to rabokki (stir-fried ramyeon with ddeok) to ddeokkkochi (fried ddeok on a skewer), demonstrating the versatility of a meal that is frequently jammed into a scorching, saucy corner. Her current menu item is a chicken cup, which consists of double-fried Korean chicken nuggets, bite-size pieces of ddeok crisped in a skillet, sauce, and garnishes. It’s served with toothpicks.
Bender may be working within a more familiar Korean tradition, but there is a lot of creativity going on as Korean American cooks take ddeok and put their own stamp on it. Former executive chef Eunjo Park served ddeok as cacio e Pepe, soft rice cakes coated in cheese, and shaved truffles, at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Chef Kyungbin Min of Hanchic in Los Angeles takes rice cakes, crisps them on the outside, and puts them in a spicy pork ragu.
Back in New York City, chef/owner Jae Lee combines two street foods: ddeokbokki from Korea and chopped cheese from New York City. “The chopped cheese is such an American street meal, just like ddeokbokki is a Korean street food,” he says. Lee handled his dish with care, including Korean ingredients throughout. “Korean is more than just ddeok. There’s also some doenjang in there… We top it off with soy-pickled jalapeos.”
Similarly, chef Susan Kim recently offered a meal at her Brooklyn-based pop-up Doshi that tossed ddeok with grilled halloumi, playing on the visual similarities between the two items. As she tossed the ddeok, halloumi, and garlic scapes in a gochujang sauce slicked with brown butter and a variety of chilies, she characterized it as “paying respect to the ddeokbokki sauce.”
When I ask Kim about her inspiration, she returns to the basics. “If everything comes back to nostalgia for me, it’s my mom cooking goonddeok on the stove. She’d just season it with salt and sugar.”
The beauty of ddeok is its versatility; it may be eaten with a variety of sauces or just plain—panfry it in sesame oil until the outside is crispy and the insides are soft. You could eat it on its own, or you could try it the way my mother taught me: dipped in peanut butter, the nutty smoothness a lovely contrast to the crispy, chewy sweetness of the ddeok.