I share a bittersweet moment with you all… the preparation and consumption of my last bowl of instant ttuk guk. It was a precious moment, and good things are always even better when shared.
This is the object of my obsession, Ottogi’s instant rice cake soup, or Ssal Ttuk Guk. Ottogi is the maker of many fine instant foods, but this has to be their best. The have lofty goals to make delicious, healthy and easy to make food. One of their mottos is “Ottogi fills ALIVE TASTE and Nutrition of nature to all products”. They create classic instant food products that try to recreate Korean comfort food, like burnt rice crusts, and ttukbokki (spicy rice cake) flavored ramen. They make weird trendy food too. Pizza flavored rice cakes? No thank you. I don’t care about any of that though, I just want this. Every day. All day long. In an unlimited supply.
I found these on the cup noodle shelf at the Apollo Market – the neighborhood market just across the parking lot from my first apartment here in Darkhan. It’s a popular market because they stock a good variety of products, everything is clearly priced, the staff if friendly, and with the Russian embassy across the street, they try to stock “international” foods. Korean food is popular in Mongolia. Korean restaurants are everywhere, and you can find Korean products on even the tiniest country mini-market’s shelves. This though… this precious food, I had never seen before, and on instinct, I bought 4 of them that day.
I spent the better part of my young/ not-so-young adult life as a strict vegan. Mongolia makes that a daily challenge. If I lived in Ulaanbaatar, I’d have access to all kinds of food in grocery stores, and vegan friendly cuisine at dozens of restaurants around the city, but I live in Darkhan. That means everything available here is what grows (or grazes) around here, and what comes in from distributors in Ulaanbaatar. In the winter, much of the produce selection disappears, and you want to eat seasonally to avoid Chinese produce that is over priced and chock full of chemical preservatives. I try to eliminate as much meat and dairy as possible from my daily diet, but as soon as I settled here I caved on Korean comfort foods. These are foods that I would make vegan versions of at home, and rarely ever found vegan versions of outside of veggie/vegan Korean restaurants in Seoul. Ttuk guk is a childhood favorite. With fresh rice cakes, it’s melt in your mouth delicious. Totally filling. It makes you feel like you’re being hugged by a polar bear wearing an electric blanket, and that polar bear just wants you and your tummy to be happy and full for forever.The soup usually comes with some ground or sliced beef in it, and the soup is a beef based broth, so this is one of those comforts I gave up over 17 years ago.
The beauty of most Korean instant foods is that the flavors are usually artificial. I checked the cholesterol count on the package and it was minimal, indicating a small amount of animal protein. Sodium was high, indicating a large amount of artificial “meat” flavor. All good in the new diet hood! I had no idea how they were going to pull off the rice cakes, but I was still willing to try.
The package contains a bag of vacuum packed rice cakes with a silica gel packet for “freshness”, an MSG-heavy, gooey soup sauce/gel, and a packet of dehydrated TVP (texturized vegetable protein), egg, green onion, and seaweed. No chunks of beef to be seen anywhere! Oh yeah, and a cute little soup spoon.
Dump all the contents into the bowl (rice cakes on the bottom), boil some hot water and fill it up about half-way (to the little line inside the bowl) and cover the top with the foil cover and something heavy-ish to keep all the power of hot water inside. Give the soup about 8-10 minutes to reach ultimate levels of delicious. I tried it at 5 minutes and it’s edible, but the rice cakes still needed some soaking in the soup. At it’s peak, the rice cakes are perfectly re-hydrated. They’re soft, chewy and they’ve absorbed the flavor in the soup. It’s like magic. Crazy, incomprehensible, developed in a laboratory, delicious food magic.
The final result stays nice and hot, but it might be the way I INHALE it as soon as I’ve taken off that foil top. I start with some soup and then work my way through the rice cakes so I can get a perfect ratio of rice cake to soup on my spoon. I have some OCD eating habits, and this is one of them. I also like to chew on both sides of my mouth so I try to make sure I’m always left with an even number of bites by the time I get to the bottom off the bowl. (When people give me three of something to snack on, I will usually bite the third snack in half to avoid anxiety. Please keep this in mind when sharing with me.)
So, this was the last bowl. After I finished the four I first bought at the Apollo Market, I went back and bought every single one on their shelves. I think I was squealing with delight as I was being rung up that day. Little did I know that they would not be restocking this item. I held on to this last bowl for one month, afraid to eat it – afraid it would be the last time and that I wasn’t ready to say good bye. I had to though. My incredibly considerate husband wanted to take the package to the manager of the Apollo Market and make a special request to get it back on their shelves. He offered to pay a little extra to get it to Darkhan, but it’s been two weeks now, and no sign of it.
Do yourself a favor, if you see this on your local Korean market’s shelves, buy it. It cost about $3 here, half the price of the same dish in a Korean restaurant. And do me a favor, if you find it, let me know so I can get on a plane and clean out the store’s inventory. In the meantime, this is a pretty good recipe for making the dish at home. I will be consoling myself with making ttukpokki for now, since the best husband in Mongolia managed to find me two bags of frozen ttuk. I could slice them up for soup, but it wouldn’t be the same, and I can’t fake the funk for that beef broth. File this under “Half-Korean Girl In Mongolia Problems”.