To someone who’s never had Korean rice cakes or tteok, it’s hard to describe what they are all about as there are endless varieties and types.

Here is one recipe of a cake-type tteok based on normal Korean rice (not glutinous rice) which is steamed resulting in a crumbly and slightly chewy texture.

I think of Korean rice cakes as a tasty and healthier alternative to wheat-based snacks since they’re essentially fat-free and can be made with very low amount or no added sugar.  But know that most times tteok is bought in a store, first of all, it may not taste good if it’s not really fresh, and secondly, it normally has a lot more sugar added.

Since finishing level 1 & 2 tteok classes at the Institute of Traditional Korean Foods last winter, I’ve been wanting to try some recipes at home.  My excuse of not…  well, it can be a pain in the ass to get rice flour in Korea!!

A bit ironic that you can buy rice flour in shops, in say, Canada or US, but in Korea, it seems that the only way to get rice flour is:

  1. order it on the internet (so I hear), or
  2. have the rice milled at a tteok shop, which is in every single neighborhood in Korea

I went with option 2.  That means buying rice, soaking for 8-12 hours (ok, I only did 5hrs), then drain for 1 hour, and finally, carry the rice to your local tteok shop for milling.

The good news is that you can keep the rice flour for a long time in the freezer.  So with the rice flour I had on hand after entering the tteok competition last Friday, I made this cake-style tteok today using a bamboo steamer as the mold for the cake.

Yum... fresh rice cake is the best. My breakfast today with a cup a coffee.

This recipe is a result of a bit of improvisation based on what my Mom wanted:  baeksargi, which is the name of “white tteok” in Korean, studded with black beans and daechu.  The black beans give a nice texture contrast and flavour to the tteok, and is a common addition to white tteok.  The daechu also adds a different texture, flavour and provides most of the natural sweetness.

I am happy with this recipe because it’s simple, relatively high on healthiness factor due to the black beans and daechu, and most importantly, it was darn tasty.

White Rice Cake with Black Beans and Daechu

Makes 1 round cake, about 4-6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 350g rice flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • about 1/2 cup water
  • 150g black beans, soaked overnight
  • 2 Tbsp organic raw cane sugar
  • 10 dried daechu

special equipments:

  • large steamer (must fit the bamboo steamer tray)
  • 4″ diameter bamboo steamer
  • sieve for sifting rice flour
  • large kitchen towel or kitchen muslin
  • large bowl
  • parchment paper or normal white paper

Preparation:

1.  In a small pot, add soaked beans and cover with water.  Bring to a boil, and simmer for about 25-30 minutes until cooked.  Drain, and mix in sugar.

2.  While cooking the beans, prepare the bamboo steamer.   Take a piece of paper, and fold into quarter, then fold over twice again to make a skinny wedge shape.  Then, place the tip of the wedge in the center of the steamer and fold the paper to mark the edge of the steamer.  Cut that mark with scissors, and make 4-5 slits along both sides of the wedge.  Now, open up the paper and you’ll see a round paper with lots of slits throughout (which allow for the steam to enter).   Line the bottom of the bamboo steamer with the cut paper.  With a brush or with your fingers, coat the bottom and sides very lightly with vegetable oil.

2.  Remove the seeds from each daechu, and then slice thinly, about 0.2mm.

3.  Measure the rice flour and salt in a bowl.  Then, into a large bowl, sieve the rice flour/salt mix.  Add water bit at a time, mixing with fingers and rubbing the flour with the palms of your hands.   Sieve the mix again and set aside.

4.  Add the cooked beans and sliced daechu to the rice flour mix.  Gently toss with fingers to incorporate evenly.

5.  Pour the rice cake mix to the prepared bamboo steamer.  Level the top flat.

6.  Add water to the large steamer.  When it starts to boil, add the rice cake in bamboo to the steamer.  When it starts to boil again (you should see some steam escaping on the side), start timing 15 minutes for steaming.

7.  Turn off heat, and let stand for 5 minutes.  Take the cake out of the steamer and let it cool for another 5 minutes.  Then place a flat plate or tray on top, and flip.  Remove the bamboo and peel off the paper gently.

8.  Enjoy right away!  If not, let it cool completely and wrap in plastic wrap.  Otherwise, it will go dry very quickly.  To keep it for more than 1 day, wrap it well and keep in the freezer.

Rice flour with black beans and daechu

Rice cake going in the steamer.

Layered mushroom tteok cake with white tteok and ricotta cheese. Garnish of parmesan crisp and beet and broccoli sprouts.


Last Friday I learned that the deadline for entering the Korean rice cake (tteok) competition at end of May was the following day. So that very evening, I made a tteok cake with the ingredients I had on hand: soy marinated shittake mushrooms and homemade ricotta cheese.  With only a little bit of rice flour I had in the freezer, I made this mini-cake using paper cups… weighing ingredients, sifting, steaming and playing until the wee hours of the evening.

My mom thought I was crazy for thinking of putting mushrooms into tteok, but I wanted a savory dish that could partner with cheese as an appetizer dish.  I also already had the idea of using parmesan crisp as a garnish…which I must say was pretty easy even using a fry pan.

I was discouraged with my first attempts – it tasted dry and horrible and wasn’t even brown!  A little more playing, and I was actually surprised that I ended up with a real prototype!  It could use more refinement but not bad for first try.

Making parmesan crisp. Melt a little mound of grated parmesan cheese on a frying pan until it bubbles. Then peel it off gently and cool to any shape you like.

This is super savory shittake mushrooms which have been marinated in a sweet soy sauce and boiled fish stock. A umami-packed profile with deep mushroom flavour.

Homemade ricotta cheese. It is absolutely the easiest cheese you can possibly make at home. I used a 3-ingredient recipe: whole milk, a little lemon juice and vinegar. That's it!

Experimental mushroom tteok cakes in bamboo steamer.

Korean radish along with giant green onion being sold on the curb side. This is real shopping-on-the-go in Seoul.

If there was only one vegetable to get to know in Korea, I would say it should be the Korean radish – called moo in Korean.  It is a super versatile vegetable used countless Korean dishes from vinegar pickled, salt-cured & fermented, and dried, to chopped into stews and soups, and also eaten fresh or even as a salad wrap.  It’s available year round, though it’s most sweet and juicy in season in the fall, and in late winter from Jeju Island.

Here is a Korean radish banchan recipe that I learned from my Mom recently; sometimes it’s called che-nalmul (means julienne cut vegetable) in Korean.  It’s technically not a traditional kimchi because it’s not fermented, but this is essentially the base that is stuffed into the ubiquitous cabbage kimchi.

Unlike any other type of kimchi, this one gets doused with a little vinegar at serving and topped with toasted sesame seeds.  This helps to mellow out the flavours and make it less spicy.  It actually tastes like a fresh kimchi salad so it’s great for anyone who’s not into the fermented-sour kimchi taste.

Crunchy fresh kimchi salad - a little spicy, tangy, salty, savoury. Beyond Korean banchan, it could meld nicely with non-Korean flavours also, say for instance stuffed into a taco or a burger.

There is just one caveat in this otherwise very simple recipe, and I swear just one.  As it should be obvious in the picture and in the name, the recipe requires some chopping and sharpening up your knifing skills.  I imagine some fancy machine could work, but a sharp knife and good old arm muscle works the best I think!

For chopping, I found easiest to slice up the radish into thin slices first.  Here’s a huge stack that I made, the tower of moo!   A worthwhile tip is to make a tiny flat slice on one side of the radish to level it and prevent it from rolling around while you slice.  Then, pile a few slices at a time, and make the julienne-cut to get long matchsticks.  Some patience required at first, but it did go much faster than I thought.

JULIENNE-CUT KOREAN RADISH “FRESH” KIMCHI

Feel free to adjust any of the tastes to your liking.  Be careful not too add too much too much fermented baby shrimp as I find this flavour very strong.  Fish sauce is also strong, but can be used to adjust the savoriness of the kimchi.  This sidedish is also great accompaniment to bossam.

Makes about 2 cups

  • 1kg Korean radish, washed, cut into julienne 2-3 mm (approx. 1/2 large radish)
  • 5 Tbsp Korean red chili powder
  • 5 medium garlic cloves, minced finely
  • 1 1/4 tsp anchovy fish sauce 액젓
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt (to taste)
  • 1 tsp ginger, grated finely
  • 1 large green onion, finely sliced
  • 1 tsp fermented shrimp (새우젓) (optional)

1.  In a big bowl, start with the cut radish sticks and sprinkle sugar.  Then toss in the rest of the ingredients, and mix well with hands.

2.  Let it sit for about 30 minutes.  The salt and sugar will draw moisture from the radish and create a red kimchi water.  Taste, and adjust any seasoning. Store in a glass jar or glass tupperware in the refrigerator for up to 2-3 weeks.

3.  When serving, spoon over some vinegar and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds.

While rice is essential to a Korean diet, there is actually a wide range of grains used in Korean cooking.  I came across one in particular that I have never seen before, called yulmu in Korean, or job’s tears in English.  Other than the strange names, it looks much like pearled barley with it’s rounded shape and striped groove down the middle.  It apparently has some health benefits and is often used to make tea in Korea.

Other than adding yulmu to steamed rice and making tea out of it, I don’t know of other ways it can be prepared in Korean cooking.  So when I made japchae for my Mom’s birthday, I tried to prepare yulmu risotto style with the extra spinach leftover.  Risotto works with different grains if you can be open to the different textures and subtle taste of each unique grain.

I found yulmu to be a hearty grain with substance.  It is not mealy starchy, but rather waxy-like starch, much like the waxy corn kernels that you find in Korea.  It keeps it’s shape very well with long cooking, which makes it a high potential for soups, stews and salads, and has a rather pleasant texture with a slight chewiness.

So this was an experimental dish that turned out more than okay.  For the stock, I used a bouillon cube and mushroom liquid that I had on-hand from rehydrating dried shittake mushrooms. It was cooked for about 40 minutes, adding a bit of stock through the cooking, then fresh spinach tossed in right at the end.  A little grated parmesan cheese and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil rounds out the flavor and that’s it.  Simple, healthy and a nice change to everyday rice.

JOB’S TEARS RISOTTO-STYLE WITH WILTED SPINACH

  • 1 cup job’s tears (율무, pronounced yul-moo in Korean)
  • about 3 cups vegetable stock (homemade or bouillon cube)
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 big handful of fresh spinach, washed, trimmed
  • grated parmesan and extra virgin olive oil for garnish

1.  Soak yul-mu for 1 hour, then drain.

2.  Heat up the vegetable stock in a pot to a low simmer.

3.  In a medium pot, heat olive oil and saute onion on medium heat for about 5 minutes until soft.  Add strained job’s tears.  Add about a cup of stock and let it simmer on low heat.  Keep adding stock as it becomes dry. Simmer until grains are fully cooked, stirring occasionally, about 40-45 minutes.

4.  Add another 1/4 cup of stock or so at the end with the spinach.  Heat for about 2 minutes, or until spinach wilt.  Serve with garnish of grated parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil.

Last Friday was my Mom’s 57th birthday.  Unlucky that it fell on a day, actually a week, in the hospital, but we still managed celebrate in our own way.  I asked the day before if there was anything she wanted to eat.  She thought only for a moment, and replied, “japchae.”  This is a traditional Korean dish of glass noodles with lots and lots of vegetables, all tossed together in a light seasoning of soy sauce and sesame oil.

The next morning, I looked around the kitchen to see what ingredients were already on hand.  I searched through all corners of the pantry and thankfully found a small bit of dried glass noodles (called dang-myeun in Korean) from my Aunt’s visit a long while back.  I have never bought these noodles before, so that just saved a lot of time.

I made a quick trip to the vegetable shop a block away, and picked up a carrot, a huge bag of spinach (500g = A lot of spinach), and a bowl of Korean style mushrooms. I don’t know the English name for these mushrooms; they are about 2 inches in length, with a small grayish cap, and they can be easily spotted in shops.  All the veggies only costed 2,500 won, and I was amazed how such fresh produce can cost so little.

I should mention here that I’ve never made japchae before, though I’ve seen it being made a few times. I took out my little booklet of 10 most-loved Korean recipes – in Korean, a gift I received from my cooking school.  Wow, talk about over-complicating a recipe, how could such a simple dish look so complicated?  Maybe it’s because of a whole page full of small-font Korean words intimidate me!

Really, the dish is not complicated per se, but it does take a bit of time for preparation as each ingredient is cooked separately.  The most time consuming is the vegetable preparation, but throwing everything together in the end is easy!

The vegetables can be varied, but in general, onion, mushrooms, carrot and spinach are always in the mix.  Beef is also optional, but this dish can be easily made vegetarian.  Dried mushrooms rehydrated are normally used, but fresh can be used as well. Good point to note is eye-balling about 50/50 veg to noodles in the finished dish.  It’s no rule or anything but this dish is best when it’s heavy on vegetables.

I finally made my way to the hospital with the packed japchae in a plastic bag, a little chocolate cake I bought in a bakery, and another spinach and Korean whole grain risotto – an experimental dish.  Mom didn’t care for the latter, but I actually thought it turned out quite nicely and will follow with a post.  But the japchae was a success, and she ate a whole big bowl of it.  Mind you, she skipped lunch and was starving while I showed up really late with all the food…. Still, I will count this as thumbs up on my japchae attempt number 1.

Japchae – Korean glass noodle salad with mixed vegetables

serves 3-4

The portion of vegetables is a bit more than what you need, but I purposely loaded the dish with vegetables.  Another tip I was advised afterwards is to saute the finished japchae for about 5 minutes at the end to get nice, chewy textured noodles.

  • about 60g dried cellophane noodles (당면)
  • about 350g fresh spinach, trimmed, washed well
  • 1 carrot, peeled, julienned thin
  • 1 sweet red pepper, julienned thin (optional)
  • 4 dried shittake mushrooms, soaked, sliced
  • about 150g fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 onion, sliced 1 cm thick
  • 1 small garlic, minced
  • about 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil (or other similar oil) for sauteing the vegetables
  • salt for seasoning each vegetable

Seasoning for noodles:

  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce, 1/2 Tbsp each of sugar, roasted sesame oil, roasted sesame seeds, 1/4 tsp salt

Rehydrate the dried shittake mushroom in warm water for about 1 hour or until fully rehydrated. Remove the stems, and pat dry. Set aside.

Cook the cellophane noodles according to instructions, about 5 minutes, or cook until it’s cooked through but still has a slight bite .  Drain, and wash well with running cold water several times, mixing the noodles with your hand.  Drain well, then place in a large bowl.  Add the seasonings to the noodles and mix well.  (Most Koreans use disposable plastic gloves).  Set aside.

Blanch the trimmed and washed spinach in boiling water with a little salt for about 30-45 seconds or so, or until they wilt.  Drain quickly, or skim off the spinach with a strainer from the pot, and cool immediately in ice bath.  Gently squeeze the water out of the spinach. In a small bowl, season with minced garlic, salt, 1/2 tsp sesame oil.  Set aside.

Prepare the carrot into thin julienned matchsticks, and slice thinly the red pepper to the same size. Slice the shittake and fresh mushrooms into thin slices.  Cut the onion in half, and make about 1/2 cm thick slices. Saute each vegetable separately on medium-high heat with a little oil.  Ideally, the vegetable should not crowd the pan, and should be sauteed only briefly, about 45 seconds-2 minutes, until vegetable is slightly softened.  Remove each vegetable into a small bowl.  Season to taste with salt, mix well, then add it to the noodles.  Repeat for all 5 veggies.

Toss all the vegetables, including the spinach, and noodles to distribute evenly.  Using your hands works best.

Before serving, saute the whole mix on a frying pan for about 5 minutes.  Taste, and correct seasoning if needed with salt.  Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.

Store leftovers in the fridge.  Reheat in microwave until slightly warm, about 1 minute.

Cellophane, or clear glass noodles. It is made from the starch of sweet potato.

Fresh spinach about to be trimmed.

One of my favorite things about Seoul are the traditional markets dotted all over the city in every neighborhood.  They are a place of adventure and excitement of what awaits to be discovered. No less true when one day I randomly ran into the Gwangjang Market that I have heard of but have never been.

Gwang-jang market.

It was after one of my cooking classes on a Saturday evening, having an errand to run, I headed towards Dongdaemun area keeping an eye for interesting eats.  Close to Jongno-5ga, I found a sign for a market selling clothes, blankets and random things, a common market scene in this area.  But as I walked further in, I saw glowing lights ahead, and to the delight of my tummy, the sight of food stuffs started to appear.

The mysterious alleyway.

I peered down a small mysterious alleyway to my left.  I saw a buzzing crowd and a row of eateries that I thought must be serving something yummy.  My eyes quickly scanned the Korean words looking for clues as to what they were serving.  As I walked further in, I saw old ajimmas (ladies) in front of the restaurants ushering customers in to small 12-seat joints and fresh, shiny red meat and liver displayed in the front.  My first thought was that they must be serving some BBQ, but oddly, I thought, no smells wafting my way.  Then, I finally clued in.  Ah, the signs that said “hwyae”, which is Korean sashimi, is actually referring to raw beef and raw liver!  My realization was confirmed as I turned my head and saw a ajjoshi (man) dipping his raw beef in a sesame oil seasoning enjoyed along side his soju.   I know some Koreans have an obsession with raw foods, including raw beef sashimi, but eating slimy, RAW cow’s liver… that is really extreme food!  I thought you DIE if you eat this stuff.

This is cow's liver sliced up, eaten sashimi style.

Fortunately, I found an even more buzzing food scene as I walked further down the market hall (that seemed endless).  Suddenly, the crowd was bigger.  There were bigger food stalls and lots of people sitting around drinking and eating everywhere.  There was ajimmas frying nokdu (mung bean) pancakes, even grinding the bean in front of you with an old stone grinder.  For a good few minutes, I just took in the whole scene – the little food mountains everywhere, like japche, jokbal, and kimbap, the older gentlemen enjoying soju with their friends, the steamy pots and pans of yummy-looking food, and the buzzing noise of people just going about their own business enjoying dinner.

As I walked from one food stall to another, the ajimmas behind at each stall gestured for me to take a seat and asked what I was looking for.  Finally, after doing a little circle around, I took a seat at one of the benches and asked the ajimma for tteokbokki, a classic street food of rice cake cylinders smothered in spicy chili sauce, and soondae, a Korean blood sausage made of pig’s blood, glass noodles and glutinous rice.

Ajimma slicing my soondae order.

Soondae on the left, and the tteokbokki with the sweet and spicy red sauce.

I took my first bite at the soondae, seeing that the tteokbokki looked and smelled a little spicy.  I don’t know if it was just because I was hungry or if it was the atmosphere of the market, but it was the best tasting soondae I ever tasted.

On to the tteokbokki.  Honestly, after one bite, I was in tears.  Nothing emotional here, my eyes were just sensitive to the spiciness and the steam from the fish broth that was a few inches from my face. Next thing I know, the wells of tears in my eyes had turn into full streams of tears running down my face, and I was starting to feel slightly awkward (it’s not like I can run to the bathroom!).  The guy next to me passed around the toilet paper roll that was used as napkin, and soon enough, everything was under control.  The tteokbokki was spicy indeed, but SOOOO tasty that I finished it all.  I mean, the sauce was killer, in a good way.  It looked like it had been reducing on the burner for hours, coating the fat rice cake cylinders just perfectly, which itself had the perfect soft, chewy texture.

After the satisfying meal, I headed out right away escaping through one of the alleys.  The rest of the exploring will have to wait for the next visit, now that I know how to find this market.

 

There are certain foods that I have pseudo-given up being in Korea in the spirit of cooking Korean food and for better health.  I speak about butter, one of my best cooking buddies, and THE secret ingredient that makes everything taste delicious.  Oh, how I do miss thee.

Luckily, there is some consolation to replace the saturated fat in the diet: the pork belly.  Yes, Koreans are absolutely obsessed with pork belly.  You can get green tea-fed pork belly, Jeju black pig pork belly, special pork belly that doesn’t smell.. and who knows how many other kinds.

All have a different price point and different taste character.  How do I know?  I have to admit that I always do my rounds at Homeplus when they are sampling samgypsal (grilled pork belly).  I just can’t resist most times.  I wonder how many silent calories that adds up with every trip to the grocery store…hmm, food for thought.

But let’s not worry so much about calories, health obsessed Koreans have a different view of this fatty meat than, say, Westerners, where fat has a bad reputation.  Whether it’s true or not, Koreans believe that pork fat, unlike beef fat, passes right through the body instead of gravitating to your love handles, and it also removes toxins from your body. Amongst the many anecdotal health claims in Korea, this one I WANT to believe.

So with that, here are pork belly two ways – one Korean bo-ssam style, and Japanese-style slow braised. I’m a big fan of bo-ssam with the burst of bold flavours that you create in your own individual morsel. It is essentially boiled pork belly slices wrapped in steamed cabbage accompanied by raw oyster, ssam jang and julienne turnip fresh kimchi.  It is particularly delicious when fresh kimchi is made in the late fall during kimjang, and when napa (baechu) cabbage is at its best with its tender, sweet yellow inner leaves.  In fact, I had it only for the first time last fall when I went over to my Aunts for her kimjang.  At the end of the day, all there’s left to do is to boil a chunk of pork belly for about 1 hour, and an array of components come together on the table from the ingredients of making kimchi. Very delicious and satisfying.

I searched for another way to prepare pork belly, a slow braised method, which I think brings out the best in this cut of meat.  I used a very simple recipe from justhungry.com for a slow braised pork belly mildly seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, ginger and sake (which I replaced with soju).  And I braised it in the slow cooker, a method I highly recommend, as not only was it easy to make, but it resulted in the most delectable soft jelly texture.  To put it simply, this dish is all about savoring the glory of pork belly itself and is a must-try recipe at home.

Piece of pork belly with julienned radish kimchi and ssam jang on steamed cabbage leaf.

The inner leaves of napa cabbage. They are beautifully yellow in colour and very sweet in taste. The very best for bossam.

BOILED PORK BELLY FOR BOSSAM

  • about 1 lb pork belly (in one piece)
  • 2 Tbsp Korean miso paste (duenjang)
  • 1 large piece of ginger
  • about 1L of water
  • about 15 cabbage leaves, steamed (either napa cabbage or green cabbage)

Accompaniments:

  • store-bought ssam jang
  • turnip (moo) kimchi, made fresh, not fermented
  • raw fresh oysters (optional)

In a pot, bring to boil the pork belly and water.  Add duenjang and ginger.  Reduce heat, and simmer about 45 minutes, or until meat is tender and cooked.

Separate the cabbage leaves and wash with water.  Steam in a steamer until tender.

To serve, slice the boiled pork in about 0.5cm slices.  To eat ssam, wrap a piece of pork, kimchi, ssamjang and oyster and try to eat at one go!

Gorgeous piece of pork belly and absolutely melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.

JAPANESE BRAISED PORK BELLY
recipe adapted from justhungry.com
  • about 1 lb pork belly with skin
  • 2 Tbsp sugar — used brown sugar
  • 1 piece of leek (about 6 inches) — used large green onion
  • 1 large piece of fresh ginger
  • 1 star anise — omitted
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp sake — replaced with soju
  • 2 cups water

Cut the pork into cubes, about 1 inch or so squares.  Heat up a large pan with a heavy bottom. Sauté the pork belly cubes until browned on all sides.

Place the browned meat in the slow cooker.  In the remaining fat, add the sugar and heat until caramelized.  Lower the heat, and be careful not to burn the sugar.  Scoop out the melted sugar with some of the fat and add to the meat.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker; cover, and set on highest level.  After about one hour, set on medium to low level for about 7 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Serve the pork belly with a little of the braising liquid and a splash of high-quality dark soy sauce.

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