Lobster blow-torched until crispy. Pots of fried chicken bubbling away. Giant mung bean pancakes flipped on a griddle. Endless skewers of meat sizzling, filling the air with a cloud of eau de pork belly. These are the sights, sounds, and smells that haunted my dreams—the street food of Seoul, South Korea.
Weaving around crowds of people holding overflowing plates of piping-hot savory and sweet snacks—while simultaneously trying to find a wall to lean on and dive into a giant cabbage-and-egg-stuffed sandwich—was my hope for 2020. I was desperate to go to Seoul for the first time in 2020, but COVID derailed my plans.
Thankfully I hadn’t booked out my trip yet—I was considering doing it around my October birthday—but my gears had been turning about the famed street food stalls I’d visit. I had been eyeing piles of mandu (dumplings), long rolls of bulgogi kimbap (seaweed rice rolls with meat and vegetables), a cup of piping-hot eomukguk (skewered fish cakes and broth), all sorts of jeon (crispy, savory pancakes), gamja hot dogs (a corn dog-like dish breaded and fried instead in French fries), and hotteok for dessert (sweet stuffed pancakes)—to name a few. That was my biggest research priority, way above touristy sights.
And topping the list was one of the most popular Korean street foods of them all: “baked cheese” (aka cheese tteok-kocchi, translated to “cheese and rice cake skewers”). These are essentially skewers of chewy cylindrical Korean rice cakes and mozzarella cheese griddled and melted together until golden brown and crisp, then drizzled with optional sweetened condensed milk for a sweet-and-savory bite.
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I was born in Seoul but was adopted and came to the U.S. at seven months old, so I have never had a chance to experience this cheesy delight in person. Instead, I discovered the dish through prolific YouTube star and cookbook author Maangchi, who recreated the dish in a video.
When I first watched Maangchi’s video of how to make “baked cheese,” I was just coming to terms with my trip definitely not happening in 2020, and likely not 2021 either. In an attempt to bring the Korean street food experience home, at 11 p.m., I boiled up some of the prepackaged garaetteok (cylindrical rice cakes I always have in the freezer, thawed in cold water for 10 minutes before boiling), cut cheese sticks to the same size, and skewered them. I followed Maangchi’s instructions to a T… yet everything melted together in a sad goopy mess.
Instead of giving up, I leaned into the failure, thinking about the ways in which Maangchi’s recipe resembled the grilled cheese I grew up eating—after all, the cheese and carbs were griddled together in a most delicious way. So I ditched the skewers entirely, letting the mozzarella coat all of the rice cakes and frying them together in a pan with melted ghee. This resulted in a snack that more so resembles another Korean street-food classic, tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes, typically made with gochujang and various toppings). I then made the dish four more times until I perfected the cheese-to-rice cake ratio. (Spoiler alert: You can always add more cheese than the recipe specifies.)
I liken my skewerless, pan-fried cross between tteok-kkochi and tteokbokki to the flavors and textures of a perfect grilled cheese sandwich—with a crisp exterior with melty cheese inside, and an overall butteriness. I use ghee for a higher smoking point with an infusion of buttery flavor, but you can also use butter if you watch the heat or a neutral oil, but it won’t be as much like a grilled cheese without a form of butter. And what’s the fun in that?