Seoul’s alleys are filled with eateries specializing in particular dishes. The Korea Herald takes you on a foodie trip to narrow alleys where decades-old establishments beckon diners with their secret recipes, often handed down through generations. - Ed.
Tteokbokki (Lee So-jung / The Korea Herald)
In the heart of Seoul there is a “town” for tteokbokki, the beloved finger-sized rice cakes stir-fried in a thick, fiery red sauce.
Dubbed “Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town,” indicating its location near Sindang Station, the area is a cluster of numerous eateries that serve tteokbokki. To mark the town, an archway door stands at the entrance proclaiming its name.
Past the gateway, around 15 eateries line the street, side by side. They are all humble establishments with thin walls and old metal sliding doors. And, of course, they all serve tteokbokki.
Ma Bok-rim Tteokbokki is the most famous of them all. The restaurant opened in 1953, immediately after the Korean War. Though now a popular street food, the birth of today’s tteokbokki came unexpectedly.
The dish actually derives from royal court cuisine. It was an exquisite food for nobles and royals. In the Joseon court, the dish was cooked with soy sauce in a plain manner. The style was maintained for years.
But one day, Ma accidentally dropped the tteok rice cake into black bean sauce. Surprisingly, it tasted good. Inspired, she mixed red pepper paste and black bean sauce, cooking up the tteokbokki dish we now know today.
Ma’s successful restaurant was joined by several more eateries, forming a cluster by the 1970s. The restaurants flourished in the 1980s with the boom of dance music. Many restaurants had disc jockey booths, attracting high school students and youngsters with the booming music.
Cooked on the table on a portable gas stove, tteokbokki here is cooked with various ingredients, including ramen, cellophane noodles, fried dumplings and more. Diners can add more ingredients as they wish.
Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town (Lee So-jung / The Korea Herald)
Ma’s sons followed in her footsteps, opening more restaurants in the area. Although Ma passed away in 2011, her name can be found everywhere around the town on the signs of restaurants.
Many of the restaurants are open 24 hours, inviting those searching for late-night snacks. Located near the Dongdaemun shopping district, the area draws locals and foreign tourists alike.