Mention tteokbokki and what often comes to mind is an image of plump, cylindrical rice cakes swimming in a pool of spicy red sauce with fishcakes and maybe some soft-boiled eggs on the side. But not all tteokbokki is spicy and saucy. In fact, the name tteokbokki is made up of two words: tteok (rice cakes) and bokki (stir-fried), a combination that nods to the many possibilities that the beloved Korean street food presents.
For my first pop-up at Edy’s Grocer, a Lebanese grocery and deli in Brooklyn, I wanted to share a different side of tteokbokki as part of the Korean-Lebanese menu I was planning with Edy’s chef and owner Edy Massih. Rice cakes, I realized, were the perfect canvas to display the Lebanese flavors I’d been introduced to through my friendship with Edy. He had opened the door to a wide world of Lebanese food, from mezze like labneh and silky-smooth hummus to savory man’oushe, or flatbread. In return, I showed him the spicy, sweet, tangy flavors of Korean cuisine. Our friendship grew from our mutual passion for sharing our cultures through food, and this pop-up was an exciting opportunity for us to create something new together. After bouncing ideas off each other, we landed on a concept that deliciously captured the essence of our pop-up: crispy za’atar tteokbokki.
Za’atar is both a wild herb and a seasoning whose ingredients vary in different parts of the Middle East; generally, it’s a combination of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, marjoram, and oregano. When mixed with olive oil, za’atar becomes a delicious paste ideal for smearing on man’oushe, marinating chicken, or tossing with crispy rice cakes.
Like any oil-based tteokbokki, the rice cakes here get lightly pan-fried with plenty of oil until they’re crispy all over; after that, they’re tossed with pre-made za’atar paste until fully coated. In a traditional Korean tteokbokki, the rice cakes soak up all the flavors of a gochujang-heavy sauce. But in this marriage of two Korean and Lebanese culinary staples, the crispy, chewy texture of the rice cakes accentuates the potent flavors of the za’atar. In my opinion, both preparations deserve to be appreciated in the diverse world of tteokbokki.
Although za’atar tteokbokki is good as it is, the addition of spicy tomato jam makes it even better. Tomato jam is one of Edy’s best-selling products, and I replicate it here by blending store-bought tomato sauce with olive oil infused with Aleppo peppers and garlic. When it’s baked in the oven, all of the moisture evaporates from the sauce, creating a thick, jammy texture that’s perfect for dipping. Rich and spicy, the tomato jam has many uses: you can toss it with pasta, or serve it with any grilled protein — or pair it with za’atar-coated tteokbokki for a dish that will erase culinary borders and blow your mind.
Crispy Za’atar Tteokbokki with Spicy Tomato Jam Recipe
Note: You can also serve this recipe as tteok-kochi, or rice cakes on skewers. After the rice cakes cook, just take them out of the pan and place 4-5 on each skewer, and serve with tomato jam.
For the spicy tomato jam:
1 (24-ounce) jar tomato sauce, preferably Rao’s Marinara
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons dried oregano
3 bay leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
8-10 garlic cloves, sliced
2-4 tablespoons Aleppo pepper flakes, depending on your desired spice level
For the za’atar tteokbokki:
800 grams rice cakes, preferably cylindrical shape
2 tablespoons za’atar seasoning
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
First, make the spicy tomato jam:
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Step 2: In a glass or nonreactive 9×13 baking dish, combine the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, salt, sugar, oregano, and bay leaves. Mix everything well and set aside.
Step 3: In a small saucepan, combine the olive oil, sliced garlic, and Aleppo pepper over low heat. Simmer for 8-10 minutes until the oil becomes fragrant.
Step 4: Pour the infused oil over the tomatoes in the baking dish and mix everything well. Put the dish in the in the oven for at least 90 minutes or longer, scraping the sides of the dish and mixing the tomatoes every 15-20 minutes to prevent browning, until the mixture has a thick, jam-like consistency.
Step 5: Set the baking dish aside. Once the jam has cooled completely, it can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weekd, or in the freezer for up to a month. Just remember to warm up it when serving.
Make the za’atar tteokbokki:
Step 1: Make the za’atar paste by combining the za’atar and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl. Set aside.
Step 2: Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a non-stick pan over high heat. Add the rice cakes to the pan, being careful not to crowd them — rice cakes stick together easily, so you may need to work in batches. Lightly pan-fry the rice cakes for 5-7 minutes until they’re golden-brown and crispy all over.
Step 3: Turn off the heat. If you’ve worked in batches, return all of the rice cakes to the pan and add the za’atar paste to them. Mix everything well until all the rice cakes are fully coated with za’atar paste.
Step 4: Serve immediately with a side of spicy tomato jam and extra sprinkles of za’atar seasoning.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.Recipe tested by Louiie Victa