While we’re on the subject of Korean foods, I must take the opportunity to introduce you to the oddity that is tteok.
The best translation they can come up with for this… this thing, is “rice cake”, which initially made me imagine those crispy, tasteless crackerbreads you eat when you’re on the Weightwatchers diet and have run out of points for bread. That is not what tteok is. Although it is indeed tasteless, it is most definitely not crispy.
Tteok is an impossibly chewy, totally flavourless… thing, made with a glutinous rice flour, into about a million (I’m hazarding a guess) different varieties. You see dozens of stalls loaded with tteok of all shapes and sizes at the market, and tteok gift sets in the shops. Street food carts sell every kid’s favourite snack, tteokbokki, a spicy yet strangely sweet mixture of tteok and sauce. There’s tteok with red bean paste in the centre, and multicoloured tteok with decorative icing, such as the kind I got today as a thank you from a colleague whose wedding I recently attended.
I am obviously a huge fan of Korean food, but I must confess that I really do not like tteok. This may seem like an odd thing to say about a food, but, well… I really don’t understand the point of it. It has no taste. It is neither delicious nor disgusting. It has a weird texture. I have likened it to the experience of chewing a piece of gum until there’s only a dull, stale taste left, and then having to swallow it rather than spit it out. I can vaguely understand the appeal of the small, round tteok balls with sweet fillings inside, although they’re still not to my taste at all and I find that I’m left desperately chewing the tteok long after the sweet flavour has gone. Plus I don’t like the element of surprise that comes with biting into them and the as yet unknown filling being released whether you like it or not. Oh, the number of these I have forced myself to eat simply because they’re offered by my host or superior, and it’s extremely rude to refuse!
Still, like I said, I can kind of understand those ones. I was completely perlexed, on the other hand, by a gift I received on Pepero Day this year. Spot the cling-filmed package of two long, white sticks looking out of place amongst all the lovely chocolate things on my desk:
I looked this up on Wikipedia and discovered an addition to the Pepero page. Apparently parents and teachers are unenthusiastic about this (Korean equivalent of) Hallmark holiday, particularly since it involves stuffing your face with unhealthy snacks all day. Seriously, I felt sick by the end of Pepero Day the other week. Anyway, an alternative, healthy “Garaetteok Day” has been proposed as a replacement, where sticks of tteok are exchanged instead of sticks of chocolate.
I was quite intrigued by the garaetteok packet, in the naïve way I have when it comes to tteok, as if I keep expecting the next one I try to have morphed into some deliciously tasty treat. I unpeeled the wrapping and took an expectant bite. It was like eating chewed gum that had been wrapped in cling fim and presented to me as a gift. I was a little miffed, actually, and obviously gave the offending child extra homework as punishment for insulting me so.
Tteok is an ingredient in one of my favourite Korean meals, Dak Galbi, where it somehow works quite well with the flavours and textures. It is also ingredient in that New Year soup that makes you get older. I can cope with it as an ingredient. But as a snack on its own, I can’t help but feel let down and downright baffled by it. How can a country where “all the food tastes bright red” (as South African Friend Four delightfully describes the fiery heat of most Korean foods) enjoy snacking on tasteless, chewy, plasticine?