A holiday treat spawns an industryIt was still dark at 6 on a recent morning, and the streets were deserted in the middle of downtown Seoul. Yet a dim light peeked from a store not too far from Nakwon Sangga, which is located between Insadong and Tapgol Park.
Behind the store, a small factory emitted steam and contained huge bowls of rice ready to be pounded and transformed into tteok, or rice cake, of various kinds.
Nakwon-dong in Jongno downtown is famous for numerous tteok houses, and Lee Gwang-ja’s Nakwon-tteok House is the oldest and the most famous among them. The store is actually owned by Lee Gwang-soon, 62, her sister, but the entire family is involved. The Lee family, including the boys, are working under the elder Ms. Lee, including their cousin Lee Soon-ok, 67, and their sister-in-law, Kim Kyeong-ok, 51.
A long strand of white tteok slithered its way out of a machine, and a handful of women were scurrying around the factory slicing brown, yellow, white cakes with skillful precision and packing it neatly.
“We don’t even have time to talk,” says Lee Gwang-ja, 43, wiping the sweat off her face. “There’s so little time to even catch up to our customers’ demands.” With Lunar New Year around the corner, this is the busiest time of year for the shop, with sales spiking up to three times more than usual.
During the day, the orders kept coming in as the phone in the front office kept ringing. The men were leaving with boxes of tteok for delivery. Two women were stacking up boxes of tteok near the front door.
Colorful tteok were on display in front of the store, with prices ranging from 20,000 ($17) won to 100,000 won per box. Five men were munching aggressively as they tried to take more bites than the next person.
“The tteok here is the most delicious in Seoul,” a middle-aged man claims, dipping into the box for another piece.
A friend agreed. “You can’t find a store like this anywhere else,” he says.
Nakwon Tteok House has been in business for over 70 years. “The tradition has been handed down from mother to daughter, and now my oldest sister runs the place,” says Ms. Lee.
While it’s the women’s job to pound out the tteok, it’s the men’s job to make sure the final creations are delivered.
“We used to pound the tteok in the traditional ways, but nowadays it’s hard to find a store that refuses the assistance of a machine,” younger Ms. Lee says.
The history behind the rice cakes
For decades, tteok has played a vital role in major holidays in Korea including Lunar New Year and Chuseok, or thanksgiving, when families gather together to celebrate.
Tteok can also be found at various special celebrations such as the child’s first birthday or a person’s 61st birthday. Most of the older generation still consider the chewy, sticky rice cake a favorite snack.
Many Korean scholars believe that tteok dates back even before the Three Kingdoms period (220~280 AD). Earthenware steamers used to churn the rice cakes were found around this time period.
However, tteok as we know it today slowly developed during the united Silla Dynasty (676~935 AD), as Korean society finally settled down and rice farming became the main business during this period. Tteok became popular and spread out among the general public.
The rice cake culture thrived during the Goryeo Dynasty (936~1392 AD) with the popularity of tea drinking and the rise of Buddhism, which caused people to avoid meat. It was in the Joseon Dynasty (1392~1910 AD) when various grains were mixed in tteok to create cakes in all colors, from pink to green to yellow.
Where traditional methods are still used
The production of rice cakes has gone modern with machines, but far from Seoul, there’s a village where they still adhere to the old ways.
Surrounded by misty mountains, Songcheonri Tteok Mauel is only a 15-minute drive from Yangyang, Gangwon province. Half of the village supplies tteok year-round.
Some of the houses use machines, but an elderly couple, Kim Soon-deok and her husband, Tak Young-jae, do everything by hand, pounding the rice on a wooden platform with two wooden hammers. They even have a traditional kitchen, where they fire up a huge pot filled with rice, using wood and dried leaves. They use grains and plants that they personally harvested.
“It all began when I was selling tteok to mountain hikers,” Ms. Kim said. “I was trying to make a living because times were hard back then.”
Before this, the village made a living from harvesting rice, potato and corn. In the summer, the villagers sold fruits and herbs picked from the mountain. In the fall, the villagers would collect mushrooms, from which the name of the town, Songcheonri, was derived.
Ms. Kim’s tteok was picked up by a news reporter, and later word spread. “I was getting orders from everywhere, and my tteok was selling out like crazy,” Ms. Kim recalls.
These days, Ms. Kim and her husband have to get up at 2 a.m. to fill their orders on time. “There’s not even time to watch television,” Mr. Tak said with pride.
For the last 20 years, the couple have woken up at dawn to steam the rice that has been soaking in water all night. After the rice is neatly steamed and salt added, the couple place it on a wooden platform and pound it until the rice is mashed into a lump. In this, they add wormwood chunks, whereas many stores in Seoul uses wormwood that has been ground to a powder.
Ms. Kim says she would never use a machine, because it would be cheating her customers.
“I could earn a lot of money if I use a machine, but that wouldn’t be fair now, would it?” Ms. Kim says. “I even tell my three sons that money isn’t important; being true to everyone is.”
A village industry
The village also has a tteok house run by the village housewives. This tteok house, however, was formed after Ms. Kim’s confections gained popularity.
Until daybreak, Ms. Kim and her husband pound the rice as hard as they can. “We have to finish up 10 boxes today, and we have another 10 to 15 boxes before the Lunar New Year,” Mr. Tak says.
The price of rice cakes ranges from 10,000 won for 50 pieces to nine kilograms for 80,000 won.
Ms. Kim also allows customers to stay the night at their house so they can pound their own tteok.
“Once we had 30 college students in our house, and they kept pounding until they finished an entire tteok all on their own,” Ms. Kim said, chuckling at the memory.
Despite the central role the treat plays during the Lunar New Year holiday, sales of tteok this year have gone down more than 50 percent this year, according to Ms. Lee of Nakwon Tteok House in Seoul.
“The economy is bad,” Ms. Lee said with a sigh, “and this year, because of all the bribery scandals, a lot of people, including at corporations, have stopped giving tteok as presents.”
by Lee Ho-jeong
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