Tteokbokki is a traditional Korean street food that can be purchased from street vendors (known locally as Pojangmacha) all around the country. My first experiences with tteokbokki was in the capital Seoul. Here, it is sold everywhere and it seems Koreans love their tteokbokki as much as their kimchi!
The history of tteokbokki dates back to the late Joseon dynasty, where it was part of Korean royal court cuisine. While the modern tteokbokki is red and has a spicy taste, the original tteokbokki was brown and plain. It was called “gungjung tteokbokki (Palace Tteokbokki). Just like the name implies, gunjeon tteokbokki was the main example of Korean haute cuisine. It was mainly composed with a combination of tteok, meat, vegetables, and different kinds of seasoning. It was after the introduction of gochujang (spicy paste made of chili peppers) during the Joseon dynasty that tteokbokki became red and spicy.
At first I was quite tentative to try tteokbokki, although eventually my love of street food prevailed and I began to scoff it down by the plateful! I found that the spiciness depends a lot from where you get it, and there doesn’t seem to be a universal recipe to make all tteokbokki the same. In restaurants, the spiciness of these rice cakes is quite bland compared to what you will find from the pojangmacha in the areas of Insadong and Myeongdong, yet it still remains very tasty indeed!
Presently, tteokbokki is mostly regarded as the most popular street food available from vendors in South Korea (along with kimbap and yang yeum). Recently, however, there have been efforts to turn tteokbokki from street food culture to a food franchise due to the continuous demand for tteokbokki among Korean people. I sometimes see the spelling of “topokki” in Korea, and apparently this was a Government decision to make tteokbokki appear friendlier for the international tourists like me!