떡볶이 – Tteokbokki: How I Killed My Taste Buds

When I came to Seoul, there was one street food I knew existed – and it was, therefore, the one food I knew I had to try. I’ve been warned by TV and my Korean friends that it was a spicy affair, but I knew I might be able to try it and not die thanks to the intensive training in the area of spicy foods that I’ve received in the previous two years living with the Phan family.

When I came to Korea, I didn’t delay the inevitable. On the same day I landed in Seoul and checked in to my hostel, I ended up in Yeouido, the Hangang park, and in the streets around. That is where, in the late-afternoon, I happened upon a little plastic tent. An elderly woman was tending to the pans and pots there, and as she saw me approach and do the best I could to say hello in my broken Korean, she pointed me to one of the stools she had set up there.

Then, with grandmotherly care, she presented me with my very first tteokbokki.

Tteokbokki is basically rice cake doused in spicy gochujang sauce. Literally, the dish’s name means “stir-fried rice cake.” It is a very popular street food, and it’s a comfort food to many. The rice cake is chewy and the gochujang sauce tends to have sweet undertone.

I was in love since my very first bite.

Expecting it to be a little too spicy for me, I took it slowly in the beginning but then gradually started to stuff my face with this amazing dish. It had just the perfect amount of spiciness, sweetness and chewiness. It was an experience. I’d fly back to Korea just to get another bowl of it.

My tteokbokki obsession started then and there. I had tteokbokki the next day, too, and it was just as delicious, even though the sweet/spicy balance was different.

They say, third time’s the charm. And as for me and tteokbokki, well… it really was.

I was walking to a train station after staying until dark at Changgyeonggung, which is one of the very few (or maybe the only one, not sure now) palaces that let visitors enjoy it after the sun goes down. In the tiny streets, far away from where tourists would usually stray, I happened upon one of those ubiquitous plastic tents. Yay! Late-night tteokbokki snack! While I was usually able to substitute Korean words I didn’t know for English and still make conversation possible, I couldn’t do that here. English was not happening; I had to rely on my (very bad) Korean completely.

I got my tteokbokki and eagerly dug in, knowing I could handle the spiciness.

Unless… I couldn’t. The spicy came immediately, hit me like a train. One of the other patrons gave me a surprised look when he saw me gulp down my first bite, then said something from which I could catch only “too spicy?” before my ears started to ring. I reached for a cup with broth that usually comes with the food, trying to make it hurt a bit less. Bad luck – the broth, too, was spicier than usual.

My eyes tearing, I had to keep eating. Even though I almost couldn’t feel the taste, it was still too good – and I didn’t want to offend the lovely woman by making it look like I didn’t like her food.

With every bite, a new wave of pain went through my mouth. I tried not to breath too heavily because with every breath, I could feel literal fire burn through my lungs. I swear, if I breathed out too rapidly, I’d probably have flames lashing out from my mouth.

Halfway through the plate/bowl, I couldn’t hear. My vision was blurry. I could see my life flashing in front of my eyes.

I got to the bottom of the plate/bowl and pretended for a little while to be enjoying the broth in order to regain my composure – then I somehow managed to thank the woman again for the food. She and the other patron gave me good-bye, and as soon as I left the tent, I heard her and the man laugh. It might be about that white girl and the too-spicy food, or it might not. Either way, I made my way to the trains, tears in my eyes, cheeks burning, and with the sniffles – and with my pride about being able to eat spicy Korean food completely shattered.

On my way home, I bought some super-sweet drink in a desperate attempt to make my mouth stop hurting. I couldn’t taste any of it. When I told the front-desk staff what went down, he laughed at me, saying that the woman and the patron were probably surprised that I was eating it, instead of being surprised that I was having a cardiac arrest right in front of them. Thanks, made me feel so much better.

The food stand where I almost died.

More Korean “food-ventures:”

Hotteok, Seoul’s Sweet Treat

More from Seoul:

Bongeun-Sa | Finding Peace in the Middle of Seoul

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