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 naturally by adding flavorful ingredients, such as

❤️red = red rice (honggukmi 홍국미)
🧡yell0w = 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 = cactus fruit (baeknyeoncho 백년초)

Fresh yeongyang ddeok (영양떡) left to cool down before being cut and wrapped individually.

There exist rice cakes in cuisines of 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 / ddeok:

  • Type of main starch: short grain rice (mepssal 멥쌀), glutinous short grain rice (chapssal 찹쌀)
  • Additions to dough: mugwort (ssuk 쑥), red / black whole grain rice (honggukmi 홍국미 / heungmi 흑미), pumpkin, sweet potato
  • Filling: sugar with sesame seeds, red bean paste (pat anggeum 팥앙금), bean paste (kong anggeum 콩앙금); occasionally nuts or dried fruit are added
  • Topping: sesame seeds, nuts, gingko 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 spongecake crumbs (kastera 카스테라)
  • Shape: hand-shaped, ball-shaped, cut into blocks, pressed into molds
  • Method of preparation: pounding steamed rice (➡️dense, chewy texture), sifting rice powder and then steaming it (➡️fluffy, powdery texture), fermenting rice batter and then steaming it (➡️slightly tart flavor, bubbles in dough)
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 sugar bombs. 😋 If the filling or topping of the rice cake contains nuts beside beans, this adds further sources of energy! Curiously enough, there exists a modern kind of tteok that is coated in crumbs of sponge cake – this is an exception to the otherwise vegan food item. Also, there are varieties, which are not sweetened at all. You will find these plain rice cakes in Korean dishes such as tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or in the soup tteokguk (떡국). But more on this later, in a future post.

Where to find:
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, as long as 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.

Plain white ddeok which has been roasted and garnished with honey, bean powder and almonds.

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 garnished with a drizzle of honey, condensed milk or a kind of syrup along with other toppings. You may also see them as the topping in other desserts such as bingsu (빙수), which is a shaved ice dessert.

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 might spoil until the next day.
  • If you put them into the fridge, they will harden and require heat to soften again.
  • If you decide to store them, it’s best to freeze them. Let them thaw slowly at room temperature, when 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.
  • If you want to soften hardened rice cakes quickly, you could do so using a microwave (❗️softens unevenly, so tteok needs to be turned frequently) or roasting them on a dry pan (❗️burns and melts suddenly!). Steaming them is another option. [Otherwise, I recommend letting them thaw naturally.]

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Vegetarian option no. 1: Bibimbap 비빔밥

The dish that is perhaps the most easily found option for vegans, vegetarians or people following a halal or kosher diet is….

🍚🍄🥕🍳🥒🍆
Bibimbap 비빔밥 – literally “mixed rice”


Hot Stone Bowl Bibimbap (Dolsot Bibimbap 돌솥비빔밥) with mushrooms, rice on the side, soy sauce and side dishes.

Bap” 밥 meaning rice is one of the staple foods of Korean cuisine, so many dishes contain rice and also carry the word “bap” in their name. 
Beside 🍚rice, the dish consists of a number of varying toppings (mostly seasoned 🥕vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🍳egg) plus a sauce. There are innumerable versions of Bibimbap! I will soon introduce common versions with classical combinations of vegetables as well as post innovative creations from modern restaurants here.

Bibimbap with fresh vegetables (saengyachae Bibimbab 생야채비빔밥) including avocado.

Normally, the cheaper versions do not contain meat or fish produce at all. Otherwise, you can ask the waiter or cook to omit the respective topping when preparing your serving. You can do so by saying something like this:
🥩 “Gogi bbae juseyo.” “고기 빼 주세요” – Without meat please. 🍖
🐟 “Saengseon ina haemul bbae juseyo.” “생선이나 해물 빼 주세요” – Without fish or seafood please. 🦐
🥚 “Gyeran bbae juseyo.” 계란 빼 주세요” – Without the egg please. 🍳

Two types of Bibimbap served with complimentary side dishes and soup.
Sauce is added to personal preference.

Another key ingredient of Bibimbap is the sauce. The classical sauce is Korean fermented Chili sauce (gochujang 고추장), which in some cases has been upgraded with pieces of beef (this is mostly the case in more expensive restaurants). At other times, you have a selection of different sauces to choose from. Beside chili sauce, I’ve encountered versions of Bibimbap which have been served alongside seasoned soy sauce (양념 간장), a mustard sauce (겨자소스) or even a sauce made from sesame seeds.

How to eat:
In the large serving bowl, evenly mix the rice, toppings and sauce, which you add according to your personal taste. Ideally, chopsticks are used to stir everything, so that the rice grains are not mushed into a paste – but this takes more effort than simply using a spoon! 😆 The mixed rice is then eaten with a spoon.

Where to find:
Simple versions of Bibimbap can be found in even the smallest, most basic restaurants of Korea, the so-called bunsikjeom 분식점. There are restaurants, which specialize in Bibimbap and thus offer a range of different versions. In general, there exists at least one Bibimbap option in most restaurants serving Korean food.