Ddok-Bok-Gi: Spicy Taste in My Memory

Jungeun (Jessie) Shin

I was enjoying a moment of silence that rarely happens in my house. Sitting on a comfortable yellow sofa and drinking bitter green tea made me feel like I had become an adult. I had a fashion magazine on hand but instead I was visualizing various sorts of food that my mom might serve for dinner later at night. When I heard a door slamming into the wall, I realized that my sweet daydreaming time was over. My sister had arrived back from her elementary school trip. When I went to greet my sister, I caught an unusual scene; she was dragging mom’s shirt and begging her to cook something. That was extraordinary because usually we didn’t ask our mom to cook certain foods. We knew that she had never been a fan of cooking. However, for the first time, my sister kept pleading with our mom to cook this specific food. In her whining, I could hear the name of the food she wanted. It was Ddok-Bok-Gi.

Obviously, by this time I had already tasted Ddok-Bok-Gi. It’s spicy and a little bit sweet at the same time. It is such a popular dish in Korea that it is impossible to find someone who has never tried it. Ddok-Bok-Gi gained popularity after the Korean Conflict, a war between South and North Korea in the 1950s. My sister was one of the few people who had never tried Ddok-Bok-Gi, that is, until she went on her school trip. She had weak tolerance for spicy food and instead always looked for sugary ones. I still don’t know how her friend persuaded my sister to eat spicy food, but she finally found another world of spices.
Before the Korean Conflict flour had been uncommon and expensive, but after the war, American soldiers provided flour with the other aid they sent. From that time on, flour became more popular. Koreans had sampled various rice cakes from the past but rice was somewhat expensive and always sweet. This time, people made a rice cake out of flour and added traditional Korean red pepper sauce to make it spicy. It was a huge success since it was both unique and spicy, and many Koreans like spicy food. The red pepper sauce was the key factor that brought success to this food, because the sauce was familiar to everyone. Even though the combination with flour was new, red pepper sauce was an honored part of our tradition.
Whenever my family traveled to the rural area where my grandmother lived, we received a huge bowl of red pepper sauce. The longer red pepper sauce ferments, the better it tastes, and my grandmother would ferment it in a crock for a long time. That definitely made the food special.

My sister was still begging. Mom told her to find her Ddok-Bok-Gi somewhere else, but she raised her voice and begged for it even louder. It seemed like she wanted the food at that very moment. Mom seemed pretty surprised that my sister didn’t give up on asking her. But there is no parent whose will wins out over their children’s; in the end, mom wore an apron and went into the kitchen with her phone to look up a recipe. Surprised to see my mom getting ready to cook, I went after her, full of curiosity.
The kitchen was soon filled with the warm smell of steamed rice cakes, the spicy smell of red pepper sauce, the pungent smell of green onions, and the fresh ocean smell of fish cakes. The first step my mom took was to boil the water with ground anchovies and kelp to make a tastier broth. I asked her why we didn’t use plain water. She said that we could use plain water but adding anchovies and kelp creates a broth that tastes a little like meat and vegetables. She told me that most people use an artificial seasoning instead of making it by themselves. She didn’t believe that an artificial seasoning was healthy; thus, she didn’t want to use it, especially when she was preparing a meal that we were going to eat. I was surprised and excited to see the change in my mom’s attitude towards cooking. Mom, who I thought was lazy when it came to cooking, made her own seasoning, which was an additional step before diving into the actual cooking. She looked like a professional cook who would come out of a television. I kept watching her with delight. Mom then put Korean red pepper sauce into the boiling water and stirred constantly. We had the best red pepper sauce ever, thanks to my grandmother.

For the next step, people usually put in spoons of sugar to make it sweet, but my mom instead put in oligosaccharide to make it healthier and less sweet. She cut the rice and fish cakes into smaller pieces and put them into the soup. She added chopped green onion and sliced boiled eggs last.

I was watching my mom the whole time. It was amazing to see her cooking something new in our kitchen. I could see sweat beading on her forehead and the focus of her eyes as she bent over the food. It was an amazing view! I wanted to cook like her. After she had finished, she asked me to gather everyone into the dining hall. I ran into my dad’s room, where my sister and dad were watching Korean drama and the air seemed full of tension. I shouted to my sister that the food was ready and my sister ran into the dining hall. Dad wanted to continue watching the drama, but I pulled him along with me too. My sister quickly jumped up on a chair. She was very excited and pulled herself as close as possible to the food. When everyone gathered around the table, my sister was the first one to begin eating. Her eyes were twinkling. She stood up and hugged mom tightly but she didn’t stop chewing. My mom looked happy to see my sister getting excited about spicy food. I know there was laughter but it’s the smell of the food that my mom made that will remain in my memory for a long time.

Ddok-bok-gi (steamed rice cake with red pepper sauce). Serves 4.
4 fish cakes, halved (8 pieces)
500g rice cakes, steam cooked first and cut into proper size
3 spoons red pepper sauce
4 spoons oligosaccharide
5 cups water
3 anchovies, ground
2 kelps
Garnish:  1 green onion, cut to 1 cm. (2/5 of an inch);  2 eggs, boiled and cut in half.

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