Tteokbokki a hit overseas as the world chows down Korean style
It ain’t all K-pop and kimchi.
Even tteokbokki, a stir-fried rice cake which a chewy texture and served with a spicy and sweet sauce, is gaining popularity overseas, with some makers more than doubling the number of containers of the product they are shipping to some countries to meet the demand.
According to data compiled by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra), exports of rice flour and malt extract totaled at $87.7 million in 2020, up 36.9 percent on year. As tteokbokki does not have its own Harmonized System code, which is commonly used in the export process for goods, it is highly likely that tteokbokki is exported to foreign countries under the two names — rice flour and malt extract — according to Kotra.
Compared to 2018, it is up 67 percent.
Dookki Topokki, a Seongnam, Gyeonggi-based Korean tteokbokki buffet restaurant, is operating 55 branches in Vietnam. The buffet restaurant allows customers to cook their own tteokbokki by choosing all the ingredients and sauces themselves and various side dish options.
In 2019, before the pandemic, the daily number of customers to a Dookki Topokki restaurant in Vietnam was around 700, 99 percent local customers.
The company also operates stores in six other countries: Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore. The number of overseas branches total 97 so far, while it has 230 stores in Korea.
This achievement comes fewer than five years since the company opened its first overseas branch in April 2016.
Japan has been the largest export market for Youngpoong, taking 28 percent of its exports. Of that, about 70 percent is Yopokki.
Localized marketing strategies
The biggest reason for the success of tteokbokki in foreign markets is localized marketing strategies.
Dookki Topokki bet on price competitiveness in Vietnamese market. Vietnamese are price sensitive when choosing eateries. Vietnamese on average spend between 160,000 vietnamese dong and 241,000 vietnamese dong ($7 and $10.5) per person when eating out, according to the company.
The company offers the tteokbokki buffet service at 139,000 vietnamese dong per person. It’s all you can eat, including sauces and side dishes like bibimbap and japchae, or stir-fried noodles mixed with slices of vegetables and meat.
In Philippines, the price is set at 449 pesos ($9.02) per person. The average price of one-serving dish at Asian restaurants in Philippines is around 584 pesos, according to Dookki Topokki.
The tteokbokki maker's goal for this year is to enter more countries, like Australia, Canada and the United States.
"Despite the pandemic, customer demand for Dookki Topokki has been steadily rising in foreign markets," said a spokesperson for Dookki Topokki. "In 2021, we introduced three home-meal replacements [HMR] products and have successfully exported them to Canada, Australia and Hong Kong."
"For countries that are yet to have our buffet restaurants, we aim to increase the awareness of tteokbokki in those countries with our HMR products so that people there become more familiar with it."
Diversity of taste was also a contributing marketing strategy.
Tteokbokki is well-known for its spicy sauce, as Koreans generally use gochujang as the main ingredient. Foreigners are not always so keen on spiciness.
For them, Dookki Topokki offers lots of sauce options, like cream and jajang (black bean).
Yopokki is available in 11 flavors, including cheese, golden onion butter, jajang, chocolate, tomato and kimchi.
Side dish offerings also helped.
Dookki Topokki offers different side dishes by countries depending on the taste of local people.
Seafood is offered in the Philippines. Beef and pork dishes are offered as side dishes in Taiwan.
In Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, chicken is available and tropical fruits in Indonesia.
"Although K-food and K-culture are popular worldwide, the most important factor in order to target foreign markets is sharpening the appetites of foreign customers," said Dookki Topokki's spokesperson. "Dookki Topokki allows people to cook their own tteokbokki with their choices of sauces and ingredients, and this was also an another major reason to the success."
Youngpoong said its "own technology that allows its tteokbokki products to stay longer at room temperature" as a key to success in foreign markets.
“Our tteokbokki products are good items to export as we can deliver them to countries that are very far away from Korea, or even countries that still lack refrigeration or freezing technologies,” said a spokesperson for Youngpoong.
Earlier this year, New York-based burger chain Shake Shack released Korea-inspired line of gochujang and kimchi-based products in the United States following a brief run in Korea last October.
The chicken sandwich featured a spicy-sweet gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast served with white kimchi slaw in a toasted sesame seed bun.
In 2020, exports of gochujang amounted to $301.7 million, up 25.7 percent from the previous year, according to data provided by Kotra.
K-pop stars and influencers lead
K-pop stars and influencers get major credit for the increasing popularity of tteokbokki in the world markets.
In June last year, a picture of Jimin of boy band BTS eating tteokbokki in front of a street vendor near Dongdaemun Market, central Seoul, went viral online. The picture spread all over the world using the hashtags on social media like Instagram and Twitter.
Some of Jimin’s magic moved to tteokbokki, and since then, many foreigners have been uploading videos of them trying tteokbokki on YouTube.
Soon after the photo went viral, U.S.-based entertainment media outlet Allkpop released a report titled, “BTS Jimin increased the world interest toward Tteokbokki after his visit to a local Tteokbokki street stall.”
Popular YouTubers also helped.
Kinoshita Yuka, a popular Japanese YouTuber with around 5.5 million subscribers, in early 2018 uploaded a video of her trying Youngpoong’s Yopokki. The video, which introduces Yopokki products of various flavors including cheese and golden onion butter, has more than 11.9 million hits so far.
“It has a very chewy texture which I absolutely love,” Kinoshita Yuka said in the video. “It’s sweet, spicy and very delicious.”
Yopokki exports to Japan significantly rose after the video, according to Youngpoong. Two 40-foot containers were enough to manage the amount of exports before the video, the company said, but it grew to seven soon after the release of the video. At the end of the year, it reached about 13.
BY SARAH CHEA [email@example.com]