There's a ddeok shop not too far from where I live, that sells the best ddeok I've ever eaten. And I've eaten my share: a former home of mine was near Nakwon Sangga, also known as that huge building that sells tons of musical instruments (and features a movie theater best known for [perhaps formerly] being a gay hook-up spot), and at one end of the pass where the road goes under that building, there are two shops, across the street from each other, that sell really good ddeok.
What is ddeok? If you live in Korea, and interact with Koreans, you've probably had this experience: a Korean says "Hey there (your name): I'd like to give you a traditional Korean snack. It's really delicious!" The degree of enthusiasm might vary, but a whole lot of Koreans like ddeok, some enough to make overstated claims about its deliciousness. Then they give you a round thing that's perhaps the size of a mini-muffin, half a piece of pound cake, or a large piece of candy or toffee. You put it in your mouth... and it's this weird, heavy, dense, C-H-EEEEE-W-Y rice-tasting thing that's mildly sweet at best, and perhaps covered in powders that make it the experience of eating it similar to putting a spoonful of flour in your mouth with a hunk of unflavored, unsweetened toffee (that doesn't get softer in your mouth), or gummy peanut butter (that doesn't taste like peanuts). To be polite, because of the very expectant look on your Korean friend's face, you say "oh yeah. It's good." But your mind is racing, going "can I spit this out without being noticed?" and "What the HELL is this?"
You decline a second piece, and avoid it in the future.
There are three main ways people encounter ddeok: in soup (ddeok guk - a traditional new year's meal), in spicy sauce (ddeokbokki, a very popular street food), and as a snack, in little slabs or balls.
If we must assign everything in Korea a western/international parallel, then ddeok is Korea's Christmas Cake: heavy, popular holiday gift, really filling, acquired taste (to say the least), many varieties, REALLY well-loved by those who like it, but those who don't like it really, really don't get what the fuss is about... and the subject of a disproportionate number of situations where somebody has to pretend they like a holiday gift more than they actually do.
I won't say ddeok is my favorite Korean food, but if you put it in front of me, I'll try it. As with most foods, I don't usually like foods per se -- I like good food. Crappy food is crappy, and a crappy version of my "favorite" food is still crappy, while good food is good, and a good version of a food I usually don't like, is still good. I've had maeuntang (usually a dish I REALLY dislike) that I loved this year. And I've had spaghetti (which is my favorite dish, cooked properly) that I hated.
Now that that's out of the way, I'm always startled by how strong, and negative, the response is when I ask, offer, or discuss ddeok with an expat -- it's not the most accessible of Korean foods, I know, but the reaction, it seems to me, is out of proportion... especially considering that many people I know who hate ddeok as a snack, still happily eat ddeokbokki (ddeok in spicy sauce). In this post, I'm talking about the snacks, which are packable, so they're often encountered on picnics and field trips.
As always, after thinking about this a little too much, I've cooked up a personal hypothesis as to why ddeok gets such a negative response.
Problem 1: As with Kimchi, Korean Koreans have grown up around other Ko-Ko's, so they don't have outside reference points who haven't grown up eating the same foods, to provide an outside view and inform them, "Hey there. Chapchae's a very accessible food for people who don't know anything about Korean food. So is bulgogi. You might want to hold off on juk (bland rice porridge) and nurungji (bland scorched rice) soup and not build people's expectations for soju or kimchi too high, because at best they're acquired tastes, and don't taste as good to people who didn't drink their way through university/grow up with them." The same echo chamber/cultural pride double-whammy that leads (the kind of) Koreans (who offer to show new FOB expats around) to believe every foreigner in Korea wants nothing more than to see palaces palaces palaces (when I got here, the first three Koreans who wanted to show me around Seoul all, independently brought me to Gyeongbokgung) contributes to a lack of self-awareness about which foods non-Koreans will take to more easily, and which require some briefing on what to expect.
As Joe Zenkimchi has been telling us, in his sexy way, for years now, many Koreans simply have no idea which Korean foods are appealing to non-Koreans. To the detriment of Korean food promotions, and the successful introduction of new arrivals to Korean foods. I've seen this some people around me as well: yes, dwenjang is a representative Korean food... it's also really strong-smelling and tasting, and takes a few tries to get used to. It's a great pick for someone inquisitive who's been here three months, but not for someone who only has a week here.
Problem 2: there's really no snack similar to ddeok in the west. Even the rice most westerners eat isn't the sticky variety they like in Korea. Most chewy snacks in the west are very sweet (think salt-water toffee, skittles or the various brands of fruit-flavored chewy snacks). Most bland-tasting snacks are salted and/or quite crunchy (think corn chips, shortbread cookies, or plain popcorn), and often/usually taken with flavorings or garnishes (butter, salsa, dips). Foods that are somewhat similar to familiar foods are easier for people to like, because we can categorize it more easily - that's why genre movies and musicians are easier to promote than genre-defying films and musicians. Which radio station do you put Florence and the Machine onto? Rock? Pop? Chamber? Folk? Twee-folk? Aw screw it. Because there's no readily available snack category I could recognize and assign ddeok to, I don't know how to respond to it.
Problem 3: It's often one of the first Korean snacks a Korean sticks under the nose of new expats... or at least introduce far too early in the Korea experience. Ddeok is good in its own way, especially when it's fresh (it's like croissants that way: don't even bother eating a croissant that's more than 24 hours old. Ditto for a good ddeok. The best time to eat it is when it's fresh out of the steamer.) But it's a very Korean type of snack, and as such, people new to the cuisine would be better prepared to enjoy it for what it is, and compare it to other reference points within Korean cuisine (in which context it makes more sense), if they already have a solid grounding in the variety of tastes and textures that are common to Korean meals and snacks.
Problem 4: The ddeok expats are given is often not the best example of ddeok. I've had some good ddeok, and I've had some bad ddeok, and the stuff wrapped in plastic the you can pick up as an afterthought next to the cash register at the Ministop on your way to meet that new Canadian teacher who you're going to show around Gyeongbok palace? Not the best. That's like talking up Canada's beer culture (microbrew. mmm) and then introducing it with a can of warm Molson Canadian (Canada's Hite).
I think more expats in Korea would like ddeok if they were given good ddeok, and were prepared for it, both by having had a variety of Korean foods and snacks beforehand, and with a little warning about what's to come, and being alerted that many find it an acquired taste. I'm kind of a fan now... if it's good, but it took me a while to get there.