I have always loved sticky glutinous rice flour cakes, like ddeok, ever since I first had a savory nián gāo dish at a Chinese restaurant way back in my sophomore year of college. These little "cakes" have a delightfully chewy consistency, sticking pleasantly to your teeth as you chew, and the starch released from the cooking rice cakes tends to make whatever broth it's cooked in into a sticky, creamy sauce.
In traditional ddeokbokki, this sauce is made from a seaweed-anchovy broth, gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), and sugar, and the ddeok is cooked together with slices of flat fish cakes and onions and sometimes other veggies and meat. While there are a plethora of recipes out there on the internet with step-by-step instructions, photos, and videos on how to make ddeokbokki, I'd never eaten an authentic version before, and I was wishing somehow or another to get the flavor profile in mind before attempting to make it myself.
Fortunately, when I went to my local Korean market, the shopkeeper lady was not only super friendly and helpful in describing exactly which ingredients I'd need to make the dish but she also launched into something along the lines of the following: "You like ddeokbokki? I make you ddeokbokki. Ah, come back on Monday and I make you the ddeokbokki. You give me your cell phone number okay?" And sure enough, the next Monday I got a call from her saying that my ddeokbokki was ready. Ohh was it ever good!
Which brings me to the ingredients. First of all, there's gochujang, the Korean red chili paste used in this dish, pictured below. Ahhh!
During my shopping trip, I found it really helpful to have not just the pronunciation guide for these ingredients (Romanization of the Korean words) but also the visual guide of the Korean script (Hangul), so I'm including both in the list of ingredients for some of the key items. And Hangul, being a phonetic script system, is pretty fun to pick up, so if you have some extra time and interest, you should learn it! Since my first Korean marketing experience, I've gotten more adept at reading Hangul, and I have to tell you, it really adds another layer of enjoyment to the shopping and cooking process! Well, maybe that's just because it feeds my nerdy love for languages...
And now, for your eating pleasure, the recipe.
Ddeokbokki (Korean Spicy Rice Cakes)
Makes 6 servings
4 1/2 cups water
10 dried or frozen anchovies (mareun myeolchi, 마른멸치)
4-inch square piece of dried sea kelp (dashima, 다시마)
4-5 Tbs. Korean red chili paste (gochujang, 고추장)
3 Tbs. sugar
2 pounds (900g) Korean rice cake (ddeok, 떡), thawed, soaked and rinsed in warm water to remove oil coating
1/4 head cabbage, diced
1/2 yellow onion, sliced in strips
4 slices (5 oz. or 140g) flat fish cakes (eomuk, 어묵), cut roughly into 1-inch pieces
1 green onion, thinly sliced
Place water, anchovies, and dried kelp in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove and discard the anchovies and kelp.
Add the gochujang and sugar and whisk to dissolve, then add the ddeok, cabbage, and yellow onion. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook (uncovered) until cabbage is soft. Add the fish cake and stir carefully to incorporate into the sauce. (I'd recommend using a rounded-edge utensil like a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to avoid cutting the softened ddeok as you stir.) Continue to cook until the sauce is nice and thick, coating the ddeok and fish cakes.
Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with sliced green onions to garnish. Eat with chopsticks and a spoon! (You'll want to scrape out every last bit of that delicious sauce!)