Sweet or snack: Tteok 떡

They are nutritious and originally vegan:
Korean rice cakes (tteok / ddeok 떡)

Traditionally, they were consumed as sweet treats on holidays or special occasions. But nowadays, they are quite abundant in Korea – throughout the year and basically anywhere – in innumerable variations! Although the basic ingredient is normally rice, they come in all kinds of shapes and colors, with fillings, toppings, varying textures, steamed, pounded, fermented etc… 🍚➡️🍡

Rice cakes of the songpyeon (송편) variety, filled with sesame and sugar.

Korean food is often colorful and so are these rice cakes! 🌈 Ideally, they are dyed by adding [ideally natural] flavorful ingredients, such as

❤️red = red rice (honggungmi 홍국미) 🍚
🧡yellow = Korean sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박) 🎃
💚green with speckles = mugwort (ssuk 쑥) 🌿
💜 light purple = purple sweet potato (jeok goguma 적고구마) 🍠
💜purple with speckles = black rice (heungmi 흑미) 🍚
💕pink = Korean cactus fruit (baeknyeoncho 백년초) 🌵

Fresh Yeongyang-tteok (영양떡) cooling down before being cut, at a local Tteok-jip in Seoul.

What types of rice cakes exist in Korea?

Rice cakes exist in various Asian countries – each exhibiting local characteristics. Regarding Korea, here is a rough overview listing the most common criteria to demonstrate the diversity of tteok:

  • Type of main starch: short-grain rice (mepssal 멥쌀), glutinous short-grain rice (chapssal 찹쌀) [exceptions: potato starch🥔 in Gamjatteok 감자떡, wheat🌾 in miltteok 밀떡]
  • Additions to dough: mugwort (ssuk 쑥) 🌿, red / black whole grain rice (honggungmi 홍국미 / heungmi 흑미) 🍚, pumpkin 🎃, sweet potato 🍠, millet (jo 조 / gijang 기장), sorghum (susu 수수)
  • Filling: sugar with sesame seeds, red bean paste (pat-anggeum 팥앙금), bean paste (kong-anggeum 콩앙금), whole black soy beans (seoritae 서리태); occasionally nuts or dried fruit are added
  • Topping: sesame seeds, nuts, ginkgo seeds 🟡, dried fruit 🍇, chestnuts 🌰, whole beans
  • Coating: roasted soy bean powder (kong-garu 콩가루) 🥜, mashed beans (kong-gomul 콩고물), [honeyed] syrup with sesame seeds, jujube (daechu 대추), coconut 🥥 or crumbs of spongecake 🍰
  • Shape: hand-shaped 👌, ball-shaped 🟣, cut into blocks 🟩, pressed into molds 🌸
  • Method of preparation: pounding steamed rice ➡️ dense, chewy texture (e.g. Garaetteok 가래떡; Chapssaltteok 찹쌀떡), sifting rice powder and then steaming it ➡️ fluffy, powdery texture (e.g. Baekseolgi 백설기), fermenting rice batter and then steaming it ➡️ slightly tart flavor, bubbles in dough (e.g. Jeungpyeon 증편)

There are some classic kinds of tteok, which are offered at most rice cake manufacturers in Korea. Below are visual examples of the most common ones! 👇 [More images will be added gradually!]

But the diversity of tteok is endless and modern manufacturers are inventing more and more flavors these days! Some of the newest creations feature non-traditional ingredients such as blueberries, coffee, chocolate and oreo cookies! 🫐☕️🍫🍪 [⚠️Note that such modern rice cakes may also contain animal-based ingredients and are not automatically vegan or gluten free anymore!] Even extravagant “tteok cakes” (tteok ke-ik 떡케익) with decorations piped from colored bean paste can be custom-ordered at some manufactures! 🎂

What does tteok taste like? How do you eat tteok?

Mugwort tteok filled with red bean paste and covered in roasted soy bean powder
콩고물쑥떡

In general, rice cakes will not taste as sweet as our contemporary Western desserts.

Modern versions and especially the ones with (red) bean filling, however, can turn them into rather filling, rich and nutritious carb bombs. 😋 If the filling or topping of the rice cake contains nuts beside beans, this adds further sources of energy!

Curiously enough, there exist some modern kinds of tteok that are coated in crumbs of sponge cake 🍰 – this is an exception to the traditionally vegan food item. [⚠️ Spongecake contains egg! 🥚] The main spongecake in South Korea is also known as “Castella” and correspondingly called kastera (카스테라) in Korean. Sometimes, the cake coating is referred to as ppang-garu (빵가루) which translates to “bread crumbs”. This may be confusing, unless you know that Koreans consider all kinds of bakery products as “bread“.

Also, there are tteok varieties which are not sweetened at all! A common plain rice cake, which is long and tube shaped, is garae-tteok (가래떡). Garaetteok is used as an ingredient in savory dishes such as tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or the soup tteok-guk (떡국).

Where can you find tteok? What locations sell tteok?

Normally, rice cakes can be found as a to-go snack packaged into plastic foil basically everywhere – in convenience stores, supermarkets, on traditional markets, on the street, in the subway and of course at “rice cake houses” (tteok-jip 떡집/ tteok-bang 떡방), where they are produced on location. What’s better than enjoying fresh rice cakes, while they are still warm, soft and chewy? 😋

In Seoul, prices for the dessert/snack types of tteok lie between 2000 and 3000 KRW per package, but this varies by regional location, brand and quality of ingredients.

Roasted Garae-tteok garnished with honey/syrup, bean powder, almonds and jujube. Seoul 2018.

Other than this, you may find rice cakes served for dessert in traditional Korean restaurants (the fancier type of restaurant!), in traditional tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통 찻집) or at tteok cafes, which are nowadays increasing in Seoul. 🍵🍡 At such locations, rice cakes are occasionally served roasted and decorated with a drizzle of honey, condensed milk or a kind of syrup along with other toppings. 🍯🥛 You may also see them garnishing other desserts such as bingsu (빙수), which is Korea’s famous shaved ice dessert. 🍧

How do you to store tteok? How to keep tteok fresh!

Apart from this, please note that rice cakes taste best the day they are produced! In case you happen to buy fresh rice cakes in bulk [which is often cheaper, especially at traditional markets], be aware of the following facts:

  • If you leave them at room temperature, they tend to spoil until the next day. When it has gone bad, tteok has a strange sour smell or also develops mold.
  • If you put them into the fridge, they will harden and require heat to soften again.
  • If you decide to store Korean rice cakes, it’s best to freeze them. ❄️ Let them thaw slowly at room temperature, whenever you want to eat them. Just decide when you want to eat them and take them out of the freezer a few hours in advance. This method works for many kinds of tteok, and is best on tteok made with glutinous rice (찹쌀). Disadvantages are that this method does not work on all kinds of tteok, e.g. Jeungpyeon (증편), and it takes a long time to thaw evenly. ⏳
  • If you want to soften frozen or hardened rice cakes more quickly, here are a couple of options:
    • Microwave. 📺 Re-heating tteok in the microwave may be the most common method in Korea as well as overseas. Heat your tteok for short intervals at a time. The time varies depending on the strength of your microwave, maybe start with 30 seconds and check on it to see how it has softened. Since the rice cakes soften unevenly in a microwave, you need to turn them frequently. Overall, it usually does not take more than 1-2 minutes.
    • Frying pan. 🍳 You can roast tteok inside a pan, either with or without oil depending on your preference. However, with this method, it is easy to burn the tteok (particularly if it is coated in something) or overheat them partially so that they melt suddenly! You need to be extra attentive, when using the frying method. Also note, that the texture and flavor changes since you are roasting it! Certain kinds of tteok (e.g. injeolmi 인절미, garaetteok 가래떡) are actually even more enjoyable when re-heated with this method because of the additional roasted aromas! 😋
    • Steaming. ♨️ Steaming tteok is the more traditional way, but it may be a little bit of a hassle and you need steaming equipment. Also, the extra humidity tends to make the re-steamed tteok a bit wet.
    • Rice cooker. 🍚 This is the classic alternative to the microwave method, and in most Korean households, there is always an electric rice cooker that is running. If you have a modern rice cooker which has a “keep warm” option, you can let your frozen tteok soften next to leftover rice inside the rice cooker. It shouldn’t take long until the tteok is soft again. It will be warm and soft, as if it has been made fresh and just came out of the steamer! ⭐️ This method works well with most kinds of tteok.

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