Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Origin of Red Chili Pepper in Korea

It is commonly believed that the red chili pepper came to Korea from Portugal by way of Japanese traders, but in 2009, Korean researchers found that this was not the case. According to Dr. Dae-Young Kwon of the Korea Food Research Institute, he and his team along with another team from the Academy of Korean Studies uncovered that the aji pepper discovered by Columbus in Central America and spread by Portuguese traders could not be the original pepper grown in Korea biologically or through cultivation (Joong-Ang Daily). There are references to the use of red pepper paste in Korean cuisine that go back as early as 1433, the 15th year of King Sejong's reign, in the 향약집성방(鄕藥集成方)*, a Korean medicine reference, demonstrating its introduction to Korean cuisine well before the Imjin War (1592-1598), the period mistakenly believed to be when the fruit was introduced to Korea (Joong-Ang Daily), and certainly before "when the Japanese occupied Korea". In the 향약집성방 and previously, red pepper paste (고추장) was referred to as '초장(椒醬)' ('cho-jahng'). Pepper existed in China by 850 at the latest according to a reference to red pepper paste in the 食醫心鑑 (식의심감 in Korean), a Chinese text on food therapy, and it is thought as a possible source for the original Korean red pepper (Joong-Ang Daily), but further research needs to be done to confirm this link.  

*Hanja (Sino-Korean characters) were used to represent the Korean language in written form before the Korean alphabet was invented. The individual characters are Chinese, but the combinations and the meaning of those combinations may differ from the Chinese language along with the pronunciation of the individual characters, which is very different.

Additional references:

"김치의 필요한 고추, 한국 고추의 전래 역사 바로알기^^" - 천년의 김치맛! 이야기 
"An Essential Ingredient of Kimchi, Pepper, and the Proper Understanding of the Origin of Korean Pepper" - The Taste of Thousand Year Old Kimchi! The Story blog)

Posted by tastingkorea

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Tteokpokki from Scratch

Here are some ingredient recipes if you would like to make tteokpokki from scratch:

The simplest recipe for making tteokbokki tteok from scratch
If you prefer sleek cylinders, you may shape your dough using cannoli 
or other tube molds and cut the dough to your desired length. 

Anchovy-Dashima Stock via cHow Divine

For flat fish cakes, you may try slightly baking or frying the mixture after rolling it into a flat sheet to get a solid texture before cooking in tteokpokki sauce. 

Here are some additional recipes for making tteokbokki:

Two chefs present Goongjoong (Royal Court) and Spicy Tteokpokki 

with a little background information about tteok and the dishes presented
The Goongjoong Tteokpokki has beef, eggs, and assorted vegetables.
The spicy version has boiled eggs and fish cakes.

Kochujang Tteokpokki with Fish Cakes via KFoodAddict (written recipe)
Adding cheese for a fusion option

For more tteokpokki recipes and a background on the dish, you may refer to the post Tteokpokki (Revised May 8, 2012).

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Finding Good Sources of Information About Korean Food

The wide reach of the internet enables us to access many informational resources regarding Korean food, online and offline. Whether they be professional or personal sites, books, magazines, or blogs, there is much information in English and Korean to be perused by the Korean food lover. Amidst this avalanche, it can be difficult to discern whether a source is providing accurate information unless one knows a bit about Korean cuisine.

There are certain things that one can look out for when evaluating a source that will make it more likely that the information provided is correct. It does not require a deep understanding of the food, but a discernment for what makes a source more credible. The first question one must ask is, Who is the source? If it is a business, one should question their personal interests in regards to Korean cuisine. There should be a consistency in what they say about the food and the information they present on promotional materials. Professional sources, including professional blogs, can be great as they often take a serious approach to writing articles about Korean food. Personal bloggers can be great as well, but do not have an external check on their credibility like customers or a supervisor. They only answer to themselves and can write whatever they want as long as it does not violate their site host or blog publisher's guidelines. But I have comes across a number of personal bloggers that do care and do a much better job than some big, established media outlets, so the quality can vary.

Whether you are evaluating a personal or professional source, you need to assess how objective the writer is in presenting Korean food. Does he or she do the proper research and try to understand the information collected in an objective way? I don't think one needs to love Korean food or even like it to write about it objectively. Jeffrey Steingarten really did not like kimchi before he gave it a chance and tried out many samples at various Korean restaurants. It is important to keep in mind the writer's attitude toward the subject in order to determine whether he or she is being objective. Is the writer allowing his or her attitude to color the presentation of Korean food? Or is the writer presenting it objectively regardless of his or her own personal feelings? Also, does the writer allow for critical discussion about the ideas presented? For a business, it is understandable that they would not publish comments that go against their professional interests. Their interests may not be justifiable from a moral or logical standpoint, but a business is run for profit and needs to make money in order to survive. There are businesses that have a genuine interest in sharing information, but ultimately, it depends on the individual running the site and their own sense of ethics. A personal blogger may not be driven by profit, but may still have a personal interest in how the site is run. Of course, every blog host has the right to moderate comments according to how they see fit. But if the author deletes respectful, yet critical comments, it is obvious that he or she is not interested in frank discussion, but just promoting their own view or pride. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to assess what he or she is reading in a proper manner, to make sense of the information received in a way that is critical and meaningful. Even the best sources can get it wrong at some point despite their best effort. 

So the question is not only the credibility of the source, but the accuracy of the information. At the very least, the writer should be able to substantiate his or her argument by providing adequate proof. Just saying that Korean food looks like a mixture of certain cuisines does not provide evidence that it is so. There needs to be greater evidence in terms of an exploration into the history and background of Korean food. Korean cuisine certainly has influences from other cultures, but it has also provided its own influence to other cultures as well. This also does not take into account the vast indigenous sources of Korean cuisine. In order to substantiate any claim about Korean food, one must use sources that are historically and culturally valid from credible, verified sources such as documents, artifacts, cultural heritages, etc. Of course, it is impractical to expect every student of Korean cuisine to be an archaeologist or historian. Still, there are ways to verify certain things through proper research and documentation. In order to truly understand the nature of a cuisine, one must study the history and culture behind it.

Information about Korean food in English is very limited compared to resources in Korean. It makes sense that the culture of origin would have more resources regarding its cuisine than foreign cultures. It is in the personal interest of every culture to know its history, understand and preserve its culture, and carry out its valued traditions. Foreign sources only become available when another culture takes interest in its cuisine. As Korean food was not particularly known or popular in English speaking countries until recently, it would be a given that English resources would be limited in comparison to Korean ones. Sometimes, we need to dig for information instead of accepting what has been presented to us. We may be surprised to learn that there is a greater world than we have realized.

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Tteokpokki (떡볶이) refers to little rice cakes sauteed in a kochujang (red pepper paste) or soy sauce-based sauce, or other kinds like seafood, jahpchae, beef, or fusion sauces like curry, cheese, jjajang (자장, black bean sauce), etc. The rice cakes, called 떡 ('tteok') in Korean, are shaped in the form of little cylinders the size of one's index finger, tteokpokki tteok, or much bigger in the form of jumbo rolls with the diameter of a quarter, garaetteok (가래떡). They can also take the form of ovalettes a few mm in thickness, tteokguek tteok, but this is not a traditional ingredient for tteokbokki. '볶이' means 'sautee' and thus tteokpokki refers to 'sauteed rice cakes'.

Topokki JJang 
an iPad app that features 
32 tteokpokki recipes

More tteokpokki recipes from Topokki Research Institute

An excellent overview of several basic types of tteokpokki

Tteokpokki originated from the Korean royal court where it was referred to as '떡찜' ('Steamed Tteok'), '떡잡채' ('Tteok Jahpchae', sauteed tteok with assorted vegetables and beef), '떡전골' ('Tteok Jeongol', tteok hotpot), etc. (Assorted faculty and students from the Traditional Food Culture Dept. of Sookmyung University and its Korean Food Research Center). The royal version of tteokpokki, which we now know as 'Goongjoong Tteokpokki', was a special treat for royals. According to Sookmyung University, one version was made of white tteok, rib meat (sirloin), sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions, etc. according to the late 18th century cookbook 시의전서 (Nate 백과사전). Goongjoong Tteokpokki was the original form of tteokpokki as well as the first version of 간장 떡볶이 ('Gahnjang Tteokpokki', Soy Sauce Tteokpokki). 

The name '떡볶이' ('tteokpokki') was first featured in print in the 1942 cookbook "조선요리제법" ('Joseon Cooking Methods') (Sookmyung). The modern version of tteokpokki was established sometime after 1950 with Kochujang Tteokpokki (고추장 떡볶이) ("길거리 음식의 140억 투입 . . . 한식 세계화의 첨병으로", JoongAng Sunday, Suh Kyung-Ho). The exact timeline for the popular transition from soy sauce to kochujang tteokpokki is not clear, but this was the time when tteokpokki became a mainstream dish from the exclusive treat that it once was for the aristocrats and royalty (Suh). The noble class did not prepare tteokpokki in such a spicy manner, but used soy sauce as a flavor base. The introduction of kochujang was an adaptation made when tteokpokki became a mainstream dish. 

For a more extensive summary of how tteokpokki evolved, you may refer to the sources cited as well as these articles:

an excellent introduction to the history of tteokpokki 

A Brief Timeline of How Tteokpokki Evolved via Topokki Research Institute

The really cheap version of tteokpokki is made up of just sauce and rice cakes. But more standard variations include vegetables, beef, boiled eggs, fishcakes, and/or seafood. Ramen noodles may also be added as an additional treat, turning it into rappokki (라볶이). The key to making delicious tteokpokki is to use cakes that are freshly made of 100% rice in addition to using a delicious broth to flavor the sauce. Cakes that contain white flour do not taste as fresh or light as pure rice cakes. I prefer using ovalettes when rice cakes are called for in a recipe as they are thinner and lighter than the more commonly used cylinders. If you are marinading or thawing rice cakes, do not soak them too long or they will get too soft. I prefer to get the most most flavor per piece so use thinner versions of tteokpokki tteok. I add a seaweed and anchovy broth made of dashima (thick and flat dried kelp) to my tteokpokki sauce to give it a more savory flavor in addition to the carrots, squash, and beef that I use. Other broths may include seafood, beef, and/or vegetables, depending on the version of tteokpokki one is making. I prefer a slight sweetness to my tteokpokki sauce, so add additional sugar if necessary. 

An introduction to Royal Tteokpokki and a parody via Korean Food Festival
the most traditional version of tteokpokki

Royal or Gungjung Tteokpokki (궁중떡볶이)
via Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine

A modern take on the royal dish via Storycook124

궁중떡볶이 via Naver Kitchen (Korean)
Royal Tteokpokki adapted for the home cook

the most popular version of tteokpokki

해물떡볶이 ('Haemool Tteokpokki') or Seafood Tteokpokki via theboni
a popular variation on the spicy standard

해물떡볶이 via Naver Kitchen 

라볶이 or Rappokki via Seoul Taste
Tteokpokki with Ramen Noodles

라볶이 via 황금연못

잡채 떡볶이 or Jahpchae Tteokpokki via Samna

불고기 야채 떡볶이 or Bulgogi Vegetable Tteokpokki via Bravo My Life

카레 떡볶이 or Curry Tteokpokki via 아송
(카레 - curry, pronounced 'karae' in Korean)
Indian, Japanese, and Korean fusion dish

자장 떡볶이 or Jjajang Tteokpokki via Life is Cooking
Chinese Korean fusion dish

치즈 떡볶이 or Cheese Tteokpokki via theboni
American Korean fusion dish

Posted by tastingkorea

Friday, March 2, 2012

Food and Writing Should Be Cooked with a True and Honorable Spirit

Two na-in, Jang Geum and Geum Young, setting the surasang for a feast
(Credit: Dae Jang Geum)

That is a tenet of traditional Korean cuisine. And it is evident if you have watched the drama series "Jewel in the Palace" or "Daejanggeum" ("대장금") in Korean. In Korean royal cuisine, food was presented and prepared in deference to a guest's position and social standing. The higher one's social status, the more elaborate and refined his/her table setting would be (The Inheritance of the Joseon Dynasty's Royal Court Cuisine - Part 22011 presentation of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine). This holds true today in the homes of modern day Koreans when they receive guests as well as eat together as a family. A proper Korean mother will put her love and devotion into preparing meals for her family. A proper Korean host will make sure to provide his or her guests with plenty of food and refreshment. 

Hospitality is a big part of Korean culture and this should be demonstrated in the way one receives a guest, the thoughtfulness and consideration that one shows through the food and accommodation that one provides. To be a good host is to be gracious, to make sure that one's guest is comfortably accommodated and provided for. It is through one's spirit that one realizes this grace. So when cooking food or receiving guests, one should do it with a true and honorable spirit. We realize our spirit through the manner by which we undertake our actions. We realize our spirit through the intention we approach every moment of the day. Our spirit not only affects the actions we take, but our surrounding environment as well, the spiritual and emotional landscape around us. This includes the food we prepare for others as well as ourselves. So it is important to prepare food with a true and honorable spirit so that this intention is expressed. Our sincerity is the most important aspect of being a good host. Letting our guests know that we care and will accommodate them is how we realize this intention. What we cook for others affects their well being as we are physically, mentally, and emotionally affected by what we eat. So in preparing food, we must also be cognizant of the health of our guests and cook accordingly. That is true jeongseong (정성, 'a true and honorable spirit'). 

This quality does not just apply to food, but writing as well. It is important to write with the right spirit, respecting one's subject by doing thorough research and approaching it with an open and honorable mentality. There is a power in the written word to convince, provoke, and affect one's readers on an emotional as well as intellectual level, so it is important to be aware of that and respect one's readers. Some people do things with the right spirit, seeking to create greater understanding and awareness, while others choose to use their platform to spread ignorance and misunderstanding. It's not about perfection, but putting forth one's best effort to realize a work of quality. Just like food that has been prepared with a negative attitude, writing that is done in that spirit is terrible. It shows the writer in a bad light and makes one lose respect for him or her as both a writer and a human being. We are all responsible for our mentality and so we should act accordingly. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Intelligently About Korean Cuisine

Korean food is a distinct cuisine with some influences from other cultures, but one cannot draw a conclusion about Korean food based on what they know about Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian cuisines. Unless one has studied the history and culture of Korean cuisine, one cannot speak with authority about the history and origins of Korean food. Generations of Koreans have eaten jjampong, a spicy seafood noodle dish, but to say that it is a traditional Korean dish would be false. The jjampong eaten in Korea has its origins in Chinese cuisine, with some Korean touches, so it is a Chinese Korean dish. The same can be said for yakiniku. Generations of Japanese have eaten this dish, but to say that it is an authentic Japanese dish would be false. It has its origins in Korean bbq, but with some Japanese flourishes, so it is a Korean Japanese dish. It is very presumptuous to assume that a dish has been influenced by another culture just because of its similarities to a dish from that cuisine. That is not good research or critical understanding.

It is our personal responsibility to make sure that we do our due diligence and spread awareness instead of ignorance and misinformation. This behooves you if you have a public forum to express your views, especially if you are a professional working in the media, particularly the food media. Food media professionals should be held to a much higher standard than personal bloggers, but no one is free from the responsibility to thoroughly research and disseminate the proper information. So I have been seriously disappointed by some food magazines and media outlets that have gotten it wrong in such an egregious way about Korean food, particularly such basic information as the name of Korean dishes, things that could easily be discerned through a proper internet search. I cannot believe that in the diverse melting pot of America, it would be that difficult for a food writer to find experts in Korean cuisine, be they Korean restaurant owners, cooking instructors, etc. If one is a professional writer, one should have the know-how to discern who the proper experts are and locate them. There are Korean government sites like the Korea Tourism Organization and Korea Taste, etc. that are actively promoting Korean food and would probably help you learn more about the cuisine as it is in their interest to do so. (I have listed them on my sidebar under "Korean Food - History and Culture".) But none of this information would be necessary if one truly researched and respected the topic at hand. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Korean Food and Msg

There is a misconception that Korean food uses a lot of msg. Some Korean restaurants do use msg, but it is not a necessary ingredient of Korean cuisine. Traditional Korean food does not use artificial msg. Natural msg can be found in anchovies, mushrooms, and seaweed, etc. The enticing flavor that is the cornerstone of Korean cuisine (Han Bok-Ryeoh, Korea's foremost expert on royal Korean cuisine) can be created through the use of the foods mentioned above as well as meat, seafood, beans, and/or vegetables. 

In Korean, monosodium glutamate (msg) is called: 

조미료 (jo-mi-ryo, also means 'seasoning' in general),

글루타민산느트륨 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-nah-teu-ryoom), 

글루타민산소다 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-soh-da) 

or less commonly, 글루타민산모노나트륨 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-moh-noh-nah-teu-ryoom)

Artificial msg is known as 화학 조미료 (hwah-hahk jo-mi-ryo, 'chemical msg') 

or 인공 조미료 (iin-gong jo-mi-ryo, 'synthetic msg'). 

Natural msg is known as 천연 조미료 (cheon-yeon jo-mi-ryo).

Natural Msg or 천연 조미료 via 행복지킴이

Nowadays, some Korean households and restaurants use msg as a convenience item, but due to the greater awareness of its ill effects on one's health, many use natural msg as it is healthful. Common ingredients in natural msg are mushrooms, anchovies, dashima (kelp), beef extract, etc. The ingredients are generally dried, roasted, and then powderized. I recommend not using msg when cooking Korean food because it cannot give the fresh and full flavor that can be obtained by using fresh and wholesome ingredients.

Posted by tastingkorea
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