My fellow Meegooksarahm, ask not what your dduk boki can do for you…
Last month’s mystery food item stumped most Americans (or Meegoksarahm in Korean). Guesses ranged from cheese sticks to “little whale blubber hot dogs.” No and, ahem, NO. (Nice try, Mom). Well, what are they? Masters of disguise, no one (no Meegooksarahm, anyway) would ever guess these rice flour sticks will soon slip into a lava-red bath of garlic and firey pepper paste to become dduk boki; a chunky, chewy, gooey-good Korean treat with the power to cure homesickness.
We Meegooksarahm can be excused for culinary cluelessness because, frankly, the translation leaves a little to be desired. The label on the package of dduk reads “rice cakes.” Neither ricey nor cakey, these disturbingly white tubes may take some prodding to try. The experts, however, are convinced we should.
Local dduk boki expert and Korean ex pat, Jeanne Ha, nearly cried when she learned I had a package of dduk and didn’t know what to do with it. Literally had to grab the table to keep from falling over — and cried. It turns out that dduk is the main ingredient of a beloved comfort food that makes many Koreans misty-eyed and home sick.
Like Proust’s madeline cookie, dduk boki is a steaming bowlful of memories; of after-school snacking and late nights with friends. Dense, chewy, spicy, sweet, (did I mention chewy?), it fortifies school kids before a long slog of Korea’s super-sized homework. Also a favorite with women, in theory, because the chew factor strengthens the mouth muscles in preparation for an all night gab fest. It’s a fun food for all the fun times they miss so, so much.
Luckily, Jeanne’s Mom, Sunny Jee, is here to fortify her and to enlighten me. If you want to make a Korean laugh, ask for a recipe for dduk boki “Recipe? Don’t be silly,” It’s just dduk boki.” Still Jeanne humors me by making a grocery list and Sunny agrees to let me watch her cook.
But before you, dear Meegooksarahm, get to steam up your kitchen with garlicky goodness, you’ll need to hunt up a few Korean comestibles. Dduk is available frozen in most Asian specialty grocery stores, or fresh at H-Mart in Silver Spring. Frozen needs to be boiled a few minutes before cooking. Fresh should feel as sticky as cheese sticks or fresh gnocchi. It is best to use dduk quickly before it dries and stiffens. While still usable, it loses some of the playful mouth feel of good dduk boki, which is why we are doing this in the first place.
Supporting actors are fish cake and gochujang or hot pepper paste. A decent Korean grocery store will have an entire freezer dedicated to fish cake, so try to not become overwhelmed by the 19 different varieties (flat, fried, rolls, cubes or balls). Just shut your eyes and pick one, so you can move on to the other, thankfully identifiable items: cabbage, garlic, onion. Look for Gochujan in fire-engine red containers with pictures of peppers on the label for the Korean-illiterates. Consider buying the 6-pound tub of gochujang if you are a fan of heat. This is no time to be a timid Meegooksarahm.
Sunny Jee’s Recipe-less Dduk Boki
- 1 pkg fresh dduk (also sometimes spelled thuk)
- 1/2 cup anchovy stock or water
- one onion, cut in half moon slices
- carrot, julienned
- 1/2 cabbage, sliced
- a little salt
- one or more cloves of garlic
- a good-sized blob (4 to 6 tablespoons) of hot pepper paste
- 1 tablespoon dried chili powder or flakes (optional)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- green onions cut large
- splash of soy sauce
- splash of corn syrup (optional)
Separate the dduk tubes from each other and cut in half if using the longer fresh kind. Heat corn oil in a pan and sauté onions, cabbage and carrots until softened. If you want even more heat, add fresh chili pepper too.
Add the fish cake and some salt (not too much if you want to also add soy sauce later). I
n a small bowl, crush the garlic and add 1/4 cup of water or anchovy stock and a big blob of hot pepper paste and chili powder.
Mix and then add one more blob of pepper paste just to be sure. Add to the pan, along with the dduk and a heaping spoonful of sugar. Simmer, stirring often.
Add green onion and a splash of soy sauce, and sauté a few minutes more.
Turn off heat and add a dollop of corn syrup. Stir and adjust spices, adding more pepper paste or salt/soy sauce as needed.
Start slurping and chewing and don’t stop until you feel much, much better.
Not up to making Dduk Boki but looking for a good chew? These restaurants have bowls ready and waiting for you:
two locations in DC:
1805 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
453 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Woomi Garden (lunch buffet only)
2423 Hickerson Dr
Wheaton, MD 20902
Photos by Jesse Allen