Lunar New Year isn’t until next week, but that hasn’t stopped the parents from sending celebratory goodies for the past five days. Well, I shouldn’t say goodies; more like goody. There’s only one way to celebrate the Korean New Year, and it’s with tteok (떡).
Tteok is a type of rice cake. And no, I’m not talking about the puffed variety Quaker puts out. I’m talking about the sticky, chewy kind made from glutinous rice flour, usually filled with sweet red bean paste.
There’s actually hundreds of different kinds of tteok in Korea. Tteok stuffed with mung bean, tteok stuffed with red bean, tteok stuffed with sesame seeds and honey. There’s bars of tteok layered with jujube and other dried fruits, tteok mixed with pine nuts and sweet potatoes. There’s rainbow tteok, tteok made with makgeolli (unfiltered rice wine). There’s tteok that’s been pan-fried, and tteok that’s been boiled with spicy red peppers. There’s even tteok guk, a soup centered around the chewy rice cake.
I hated the stuff when I got here. “What a waste of calories,” I remember saying. “It tastes like nothing, and it has the consistency of Play-doh.”
But, much like my relationship with red wine, the more I tried it the more I liked it. And now, (just like my relationship with red wine), I may like it a little too much.
Think back to when you were a kid. At one time or another you probably had a Play-doh cooking set where you made delicious looking Play-doh pizza and Play-doh pancakes. You probably looked at your creations and thought, I wonder what this tastes like… What would happen if I sunk my teeth into that chewy hunk of clay? Well, I went past the wondering stage and actually took a bite of the salty, rubbery ball of dough. And after rinsing my mouth with Scope about a dozen times, my mother made a permanent switch to peanut butter mixed with powdered milk.
I had forgotten all about this incident until I took my first bite of tteok. “This is a traditional rice cake snack,” my co-teacher said as she handed me a box of what looked like truffles. “Most foreigners do not like. It’s very chewy.”
Chewy does not describe what tteok is. It’s beyond chewy. It surpasses rubbery. It sticks to your teeth and your fingers. It takes about a minute to swallow. It’s one of the strangest textural foods I’ve ever eaten.
But that’s why I’ve grown to love it. It’s the only thing other than Play-doh that has that I-can-barely-bite-through-this consistency. And for me, that’s what brings me back for more. It’s all about the texture. That is, until you throw some chestnut paste and sour cherries in the middle. That’s when I lock myself in my room with the box and eat tteok for dinner.
So if you haven’t already, put down the bag of Quaker caramel cakes, head to your nearest Asian market, and discover what the term “rice cake” means to the other half of the world.