I really do adore street food. Not only is it tasty and cheap, it’s a great way to gastronomically get to know a place in a fun and casual setting. And Korean street food is pretty bomb.
This is pretty standard fare in one of these Korean street food carts. Tukbokki (more on that in a bit), savory pancakes (the most common being kimchi and spring onion), kimbap, dumplings…and my love, fish cakes. They’re skewered as you can see below and left to cook in a warm broth. Having one of those with a bowl of piping hot broth on a cold winter day will warm your soul and make your spirit smile.
Not all these yummy treats are available in one cart most of the time but I lucked out because this one even had an artery-clogging twigim (deep fry) section. Seen here are squid, vegetables and kimbap. That’s right, a miniature version of the full roll that’s battered and dunk in oil to fry. Request for it to be drizzled with tukbokki sauce. You’re welcome.
And because it’s so darn cute and funny and yummy, I’m gonna include this one treat I found while roaming around Ssamziegil (such a charming little place!) – it’s a spin on the classic soft waffle with red bean filling that’s shaped like a fish but this one’s called shit bread. That’s what they’re called, I shit you not. Sorry. There’s red bean diarrhea inside. Sorry again.
Of all these wonderful snacks, tukbokki is probably the most popular. It’s certainly the first thing I crave when I land in Korea. Tukbokki literally translates to ‘stir-fried rice cakes’ which is kind of misleading because it conveniently leaves out the heat-of-a-thousand-firestorms-in-your-mouth part. The basic components are simply rice cakes and sauce (and when done right, it’s all you need) but there’s usually the addition of fish cakes. Instant noodles are also a popular addition as seen below.
I can go on and on about its many variations (as numerous as tukbokki‘s English spelling) so let’s just cut to the chase and go back to 2 days ago when my Mom decided to make her version for lunch and I went food paparazzo on her. She makes this often especially when she’s lazy, hee hee. To make my Mom’s tukbokki, you’ll need:
About 3 cups pre-cut Korean rice cakes (available in Korean grocery stores)
1 pack tukbokki sauce (also available in Korean grocery stores)
About 3 T canola oil (or any other neutral-tasting oil)
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
About 3 cups cabbage
1 stalk leek
About 1/2 cup shrimp (reserve heads for broth if using)
About 2 cups fish cakes (which is quite a bit because I love it so much. Look for it in the frozen section of a Korean grocery store.)
About 1 cup shrimp broth or water
1. All the prep for this dish has to be done before you get cooking because once your pan is ready, it’s go go go. So chop up the cabbage, leeks, onion, garlic and fish cakes as desired. Prepare the shrimp and chop into bite-size pieces. Transfer the shrimp heads into a medium saucepan with about 2 cups of water and heat on medium. Bring it to a boil and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Leave the shrimp heads in the saucepan and set aside to cool. You’ll end up with something like this.
2. Heat a large pan on medium. Swirl in about 3 T of canola oil. When the pan is ready, sautee the onion. When the onion is fragrant, throw in minced garlic and shrimp and cook until the shrimp turns color.
3. Add in chopped cabbage. Three cups for this recipe is a conservative estimate. I also always wish there was more cabbage every time I eat this so feel free to bump it up.
4. When the cabbage starts to wilt, add in fish cakes and leek.
5. Give it a good stir then add in rice cakes.
6. Splash the pan with about a cup of the shrimp broth and add in store-bought tukbokki sauce. Mix well.
From here on, you’ll only have to cook for a couple more minutes. Just make sure the rice cake isn’t overcooked and turning into mush. You can also adjust the thickness of your sauce with the remaining shrimp broth or more water.
Presenting my Mom’s tukbokki. Fanfare!
My Mom’s tukbokki is a pretty fabulous one-pot meal with all the major food groups represented. Delivers quite a punch of flavor, too! Make sure to have copious amounts of water nearby to extinguish the flames in your mouth.
Fun Food Fact: Rice cakes are a huge part of Korean celebrations and range from the simple (like the one used here) to the elaborate. You can learn more here.