Growing up in Korea, I always loved eating tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) after school. There were many street food vendors lined up nearby, hawking delicious and cheap street food for hungry students like myself. For 50 cents, I was able to buy happiness in a cup of tteokbokki, and that’s all I looked forward to when I was a student in Korea: Plump and cylindrical rice cakes swimming in a pool of thick, tangy and gochujang-based red sauce, along with big chunks of fish cakes. For me, teokbokki has long served as one of those nostalgic foods that I ate so much while I was growing up in Korea, but disappeared from my repertoire when I moved to America.
Related Reading: Why Gochujang Is in Every Korean Pantry (and Belongs in Yours Too)
Recently, I started craving tteokbokki. Pictures and videos of steamy, ruby-red rice cakes have flooded my social media. I order tteokbokki whenever I see it on menus, but no version has hit a home run for me. It could be my terrible spice tolerance, but I wanted to enjoy the sweet, spicy, and savory flavors without being so overwhelmed by the spice.
That’s how I discovered spicy “carbonara” tteokbokki, a fusion dish that combines creamy dairy with complex spicy-and-sweet sauce. The “carbonara” name comes from its creamy, milky sauce (even though there is neither egg yolk nor fatty bacon, which are essential ingredients in the Italian version). So, maybe it’s just more fitting to call this recipe creamy, gochujang rice cakes! Countless Korean moms have made the dish for their children who can’t tolerate spice well (just like me), and I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the whole recipe comes together. In less than 30 minutes, with only one pan and a couple of stirs, you can enjoy one of Korea’s most beloved and addictive street foods with a luxurious, dairy twist.
When you get rice cakes from the store, they most likely come dry in an air-tight package. Some recipes on the Internet will suggest soaking them in hot water before cooking so that they are rehydrated. But you don’t necessarily have to do that for this recipe. I rarely soak rice cakes in water before cooking because they will get soft and tender as they get cooked. You may want to break them apart, however, because they are often stuck together in a package.
Instant Tteokbokki Rice Cake, Pack of 2 for $9.49
Browsing Asian grocery stores, there are many different kinds of fish cakes stocked on the shelves—but it doesn’t matter which type you buy for this recipe. Some come in squared, lasagna-sheet shapes, and others come in a colorful pattern, or ball-shaped. It’s up to your preference, but different shapes of fish cake demand different handling and result in a variety of flavors. If you get sheet-shaped fish cakes, you can cut them in a bite-sized triangular shape. They will get plump and expand as they’re cooked, adding deeper flavors to the sauce, compared to ball-shaped ones.
Feel free to have fun and experiment with different types of fish cake. You can find everything from cheese-filled ones to corn-filled ones. Some of the common brands and shapes that you might find at Asian groceries are this square-shaped one, these assorted fish cakes that are mostly circular, assorted colorful Japanese fish cakes, and these plump, rectangular-shaped fish cakes. Depending on which fish cake you buy, be sure to cut into proper bite sizes. If they are circular, no need to cut them in half, but if they are too big, chop them all into big pieces so that they can absorb the delicious sauce.
Dairy and Spice
As the only liquid for the recipe is milk and heavy cream, you can adjust the sauciness of the dish by adding water. The sauce will continue to thicken and develop flavors from the starch of rice cakes.
Gochujang, $6.15 on Amazon
It’s also important to add both gochugaru, Korean red pepper powder, and gochujang, Korean red pepper paste. The heat and flavors come from gochugaru while the dish’s deep ruby-red color stems from gochujang.
Go wild with cheese! It’s traditional to use American cheese, but for that Instagram-worthy cheese pull, you can add a sprinkle of mozzarella as well.
Spicy Carbonara Tteokbokki Recipe
Garnish the dish with scallions and sesame seeds to add a pop of color. For an ultimate feast, serve it with dumplings or rice. Make it extra saucy so that you can dip dumplings, or even fried chicken tenders, into the sauce. Cooked noodles can also be added to the leftover sauce, but be sure to adjust the thickness with water if you want to have enough sauce since rice cakes tend to soak up a lot.
- 2 tbsp of canola oil (or any vegetable oil)
- 1 tbsp of garlic, chopped (around 3-4 bulbs of garlic)
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 500g of rice cakes
- 4 oz fish cake
- 2.5 tbsp of soy sauce
- 2 tbsp of gochugaru
- 2 tbsp of gochujang
- 1 cup of heavy cream
- 1 cup of milk
- ½ tbsp sugar
- 1 cup of shredded cheese
- 1 bunch of scallion, sesame seeds, boiled egg for garnish
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add oil and fry chopped garlic until it’s brown and fragrant. Saute with sliced onion with garlic for 2-3 minutes, or until they are translucent.
- Add rice cakes to the skillet until all rice cakes are coated in oil and get crispy. Add fish cake and stir everything for another 5 minutes or so.
- Add soy sauce and stir everything again for a minute or so, then add gochugaru to the mixture, making sure that all rice cakes and fish cake are coated nicely. Saute everything for 2 minutes. Then, add gochujang to the skillet and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
- Mix heavy cream and milk and pour the liquid over the pan. Bring the heat to low and let all the ingredients get absorbed by the sauce. Keep stirring to avoid any rice cakes sticking out to the bottom for 10 minutes, or until the rice cakes are tender when poked.
- Right before finishing, add shredded cheese to the pan so that they all the melty and cheesy. Garnish the dish with chopped scallion, sesame seed, and boiled eggs for garnish.
Header image by James Park.