For the love (of topokki)
What’s the best food in South Korea and where can you find it? I could ask if you want some ddeokbokki, some tteokbokki, or topokki, but it’s all the same. The best of it will no doubt be in a local market, or under a bright yellow tent set up next to someone’s truck on the sidewalk.
First you’ll need to wander and weave your way through the market to find the right place. I’ve made friends with this lady since I eat her dish so frequently, or at least her smile, bow, and greeting tells me that she recognizes this blonde foreigner coming to buy her food. To get to her boiling bubbling pot of goodness, I’d take a left at the pineapple truck, past the apple, strawberry and sweet potato stands, and make another left when you see the ajumma selling red bean-filled fish pastries. This will lead you to the fish tanks on one side and the rice cakes spread out on tables on your right. Go a little further, and there she is. All you have to do is tell her how many people you plan on serving and she will scoop out that amount and charge you based on whether you want a little cup for you child, or a bag for your co-teachers. Then with her right hand holding the paper cup of food and her left hand extended to receive your 1000 won, she will quickly nod her head, hand you a long toothpick for eating, and get right back to stirring, scooping and serving the people around you.
I don’t know why tteokbokki is so cheap, nor do I know how to make it myself, and I probably couldn’t describe it’s distinct flavor, but there are some things I can tell you about it. I can tell you that it’s bright red because it’s made with the red pepper paste that plasters the most common Korean dishes: kimchi, of course, Dakgalbi 닭갈비, Ojingeo-tonggui 오징어통구이 (fermented cabbage, stir-fried chicken and vegetables, grilled squid) all these I’ve had but nothing compares to tteokbokki. tteokbokki is bright red. Imagine hot sauce, imagine the color of texas pete, but don’t imagine the flavor, unless if you do, imagine a sweet, peppery spice and a perfectly boiled egg and those chewy, thick rice cakes and thin tangy fish slices.
Perhaps I have not sold you on this dish, but that is ok. I may never have this dish again, and a long time has passed since I tasted the distinct, warm, spicy flavor on my tongue. But if I do taste it again, I will think of South Korea, and I will think of homesick walks down rose-lined sidewalks and slurping it at my desk before class and sharing it with my students and handing Andrew his first bowl of it right before he proposed.