Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Deal with 떡 (Ddeok): Korea's Weird Rice Cake

This stuff.

(Image source)

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.

Image source

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.


WC said...

lol reminds me how I tried to make my friend eat bibimbap with gochujang. I forgot some people don't eat spicy food XD But, she still loved bibimbap

ZenKimchi said...

I compare its texture more to gum. I also think expats are turned off of it more from the texture than the level of sweetness. Personally, I've complained about some ddeok treats being way to sweet. The waxy shiny stuff is the worst. The other problem is that it's an easy malleable food, so it's sculptor's material. People spend way too much effort on making it look beautiful than on making it taste interesting. That ddeok festival a few years ago was a good example. Pretty stuff. But it's DDEOK. I saw people looking at the food, but barely anyone was actually eating it. It's said that we eat with our eyes first, and I like pretty food. But when a pretty food doesn't deliver equally on taste, it makes me angry. It's deceitful. That's one of the reasons that my favorite is chapssal ddeok. It's unassuming. It has the texture of a soft marshmallow--like a full supple breast. It's actually good in hot chocolate. What would be great is if creative Ddeokers would play with the fillings a bit--give us more interesting flavors. Maybe reduce the sweetness of the red beans. Fill 'em with gooey fudge, macerated strawberries, or custard.

Katherine said...

I've never had a Korean go crazy about trying to introduce me to ddeok. I do have a Seollal gift box of it from my boss, but it's damn tasty. (Filled with red bean paste, mmm.) The only culture and food my Korean friends are ever interested in introducing to me are drinking and anju.

It has the texture of a soft marshmallow--like a full supple breast.


wetcasements said...

Stupid foreigner tip: if you get a box of fresh ddeok as a Chuseok or Sol-lal gift, do yourself a favor and _refrigerate_ the stuff.

I learned my lesson the hard way when I once came home to a bajillion fruit flies.

Roboseyo said...

while refrigerating it is better than leaving it out (especially uncovered: improper ddeok storage is one of the reasons some have bad first ddeok experiences) I'd say, @Wetcasements, that even better would be to eat a few, and share the rest with others as soon as possible, rather than storing it at all -- again, like croissants or pastries, you're better off either finishing it or passing it on, because ddeok doesn't age well.

Joe: great comment. With your "supple breast" description, chapsal ddeok has suddenly become my favorite variety of ddeok.

Seriously, though, chapsal ddeok - the spongey one that looks like a slice of pound cake - is the test of a ddeok maker: in the same way acoustic versions of songs expose weak songwriting, chapsal ddeok, in its simplicity, immediately exposes a ddeok maker's real ability, because you can't hide bad ddeok under flavors or garnishes, once the flavors and garnishes are gone.

Leo said...

I never thought ddeok was seen as such a odd food to foreigners. The first time I tried it was in ddeok guk and I immediately loved its texture and flavour. My Korean friends didn't tell me what it was, they just served me the soup. People who I've introduced different types of ddeok to also started to like it a lot.

Roboseyo said...

Leo: it depends on which kind of ddeok they're introduced to, first, I think. However, the ddeok snack/candyish version is the least accessible, because western food has some chewy and not that savory foods in the "meal" category (for example octopus, many pastries, or Yorkshire Pudding) so finding ddeok in soup is like finding octopus in fried rice: not TOO far outside my western food reference points.

But if the snack version is being introduced to me as a snack (as I explained), there are no reference points in the "snack" category to help me "get" ddeok... which is why I've met people who LOVE ddeokbokki and ddeok soup, but politely decline ddeok the snack. Including 2006 me.

Bluebird said...

um... do you know that rice cake is really popular in the western world nowadays with its introduction as a side topping for Frozen Yogurt Franchises? It is called Mochi (Japanese term for really sticky rice cake covered with powder, often called Chapssaltteok in Korea)
I've never seen a person in my university campus (in the US) who hates rice cake in this respect. Most of my roommates who are caucasian and have never been to Asia and are not really interested in asian culture likes rice cake.... Maybe this applies to the younger generation or something.

Roboseyo said...

Unknown: thanks for the tip. There's stuff I inevitably miss because I DON'T live in the West.

When you say "really popular in the western world" do you really mean "popular and known among all groups of people, in all nations that could be described as western" the way, say, spaghetti, pizza, or takeout chicken is, or "popular among a certain set of hipsters in North American urban centers," for example? --how popular and widespread are these frozen yogurt places, and are you talking about America, Europe AND Oceania, or only a few of the above? I'd like to know.

3gyupsal said...

I'm really enjoying Ddeok Gook Ddeok these days. I've been making a lot of Ddeok gook, but I've also been putting the Ddeok Gook Ddeok in things like Kimchi Jjigae, curry, and left over Yangyum sauce. I guess it is just the time of year.

I've been finding that Ddeok Gook is a very quick simple and delicious meal to prepare.

Chris said...

I've recently become hooked on 까래떡 (no, not curry). Just grill it on the stove with low flame, no oil, until it gets golden brown. Then eat it by dipping in honey. I was never a huge fan of ddeok until this. You can use either the cylindrical shaped ddeok or the elliptically sliced pieces.

My Korean friends tell me this is truly old man's food, so I have to eat it in secret! The only other ddeok (outside of dishes cooked with ddeok) that I've liked are the ones filled with really sweet filling (could be sugar water, honey, or syrup?). Sometimes you get those at birthday parties.

An aside, one current project of mine is an electronic controller for a hopper which goes on a grain mill. Therefore I was very interested last time I visited the ddeok shop, and got the owner to let me inspect the rice grinding mills. The surprising thing to me was the mill stone was polished smooth like marble (in fact, I think it *was* marble). I would have thought a mill stone should be rough.

Anyway, happy ddeok eating!

-The Stumbler

Bluebird said...

@Roboseyo I'm not sure about Europe but at least in North America it is very popular. (maybe not so much in Canada except for areas heavily populated with Asians due to many Asians taking on the franchise)
Two years ago, I traveled to Oklahoma, where there isn't a lot of diversity in ethnic groups, but Froyo (short form of frozen yogurt) was the biggest thing there and the store was jam packed with people. If you look at the video "Shit sorority girls say" on youtube they even mention Froyo, and almost all the time "mochi" is one of the side toppings in any froyo chains.

My campus alone has 4 places that sell Froyo and Asian restaurants and bubble tea stores sell Froyo as a desert to bring in more customers (but then again I live in the North West where there are a lot of Asians)
I can guarantee it being popular all over the western countries but is becoming really popular though.

My caucasian roommates also buy frozen ricecake as desert

Sometimes I wonder if the term "rice cake" makes it unappealing to foreigners. When I talk to people about rice cake people look at me like "rice can be made into cake?" Esp since many Korean tteoks have the hard chewy texture of Garaetteok, foreigners get a mixed message of what "rice cake" is suppose to be like... Maybe just using the actual term Tteok is more useful.
After all, Japanese mochi became popular even if they didn't make an english term for their own name...
I know I'm going off on a tangent but I wish Korean food didn't have to literally get translated into English terms all the time for the convenience of pronunciation and for the comfort of the foreigners who are reading it. It gives mixed messages and first impressions of the product. If accurate descriptions of the food contents are provided instead of having the food be awkwardly named "glass noodle," "glutinous rice cake," "fermented pickled cabbage known as Kimchi" "soft tofu soup" etc... I'm sure Korean food will seem more appealing to the foreigners. I mean never in my life I have seen a Japanese restaurant giving their food literally translated English names (sashimi is not written as raw fish cut into little thin pieces, or sushi rolls as rice roll with various seafood inside, or udon as "noodles with occasional fried veggies in yellow clear broth")

Chris said...

In my lunch today at a restaurant near Hyehwa Station, I was reminded of another DELICIOUS ddeok which is stuffed with cheese. The few times I've had it, this time too, it's cooked in a stew or fried rice. Now that's good ddeok, surely any "westerner" would enjoy it.

Roboseyo said...

Chris: 까래떡 is some high-level ddeok enjoyment. It's one of my favorites, too... if not my favorite.

My only complaint about garae-ddeok is that it's not common enough. It should replace those MSG laced potatoes at every rest stop in Korea.

jinrok said...

I've got no problem with snack-type 떡 per se, but a huge problem with sweet bean. This is coming from a guy who joyfully eats the spiciest foods in the world, loved 된장 right away, and even enjoys the infamous 홍어회 on occasion.

I'm the type who generally prefers "sweet foods" and "savory foods" separate (Hawai'ian cuisine with not only meat but fish prepared with fruit is one of the worst -- except maybe Japanese kimchi with apples!) but sweet plus bean will always equal revolting. For me, 팥빙수 is like sauerkraut on a banana split, or kimchi jjigae a la mode.

This can't be blamed on how I was raised, either. On summer get-togethers my family loves to make baked beans with pineapple chunks. To me, they've always been landmines that I had to pick out but still always ended up biting into by accident, yuck.

karenology said...

The main reason I hate ddeok (in that "ddeok block" form, not like ddeokbokki or ddeokguk, which I've grown to like) is that it is so boring. I've never had a sweet ddeok - I'd actually dig that maybe, cause at least it would taste like SOMETHING. I love doenjang jiggae and other "weird" Korean foods because they have, you know, flavor. Usually, most ddeok I've tried just doesn't seem worth the effort of chewing.

Roboseyo said...

I love ddeok and alway's will!!!   O my God there are so many variety of ddeok in Korea!!!  Ddeok is one of those  korean food either u like them or hate them,no middle ground here! 

Roboseyo said...

i disagree with you that you either love or hate ddeok. Because I personally like it OK, but that's all.

Good ddeok is good, bad ddeok is bad, OK ddeok is OK.

Roboseyo said...

I enjoy ddeok for what it is, I'm not expecting it to be a true 'western-expectation' sweet. It's a little cloying I guess. Also, opposite to a previous comment I love sweet&savoury combos - a favourite is the sugar and salt popcorn I've finally discovered in the supermarkets! I also love doughy things and when making bread, most ends up gone before the oven even goes on!