A guide to Seollal's must-eat dish

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A guide to Seollal's must-eat dish

Homemade tteokguk made with the recipe below. [LEE JIAN]

Homemade tteokguk made with the recipe below. [LEE JIAN]

Seollal, or the Lunar New Year, one of the country's most festive holidays in the pre-pandemic days, used to be about large family gatherings, paying respects to ancestors and a seemingly endless amount of food.  
People drove for hours in the holiday traffic and cooked a huge variety of different food all day long — all to cram inside their grandparents’ living room the next morning and eat way too much for breakfast.  
But as many annual New Year traditions have been put on hold again this year due to government regulations on group gatherings, the essence of Seollal has been simplified to one quintessential dish: tteokguk, otherwise known as rice cake soup.
Korean mothers often tell their young children who would rather play than eat, “You must finish your bowl of tteokguk if you want to become older,” as eating tteokguk on Lunar New Year’s Day is fabled to make people older and wiser.
In its most traditional form, tteokguk is made with garae tteok, which is a type of rice cake that is shaped like a long cylinder. For the soup, garae tteok are sliced at an angle to create thin disc-shaped rice cake chips. The broth is created by slowly simmering beef bones for some three hours. In this form, the soup is often topped off with beef brisket, egg and dried seaweed.  
But the dish has many variations with households making their own versions of tteokguk with different types of tteok (rice cake), broth and toppings.  
The Korea JoongAng Daily visited two restaurants in Seoul that sell this hearty dish and also made our own tteokguk with an easy recipe that you can try for yourself at home.  
1. Gohyang Kalguksu  
Tteokguk with dumplings at Gohyang Kalguksu in Jongno District, central Seoul. [LEE JIAN]

Tteokguk with dumplings at Gohyang Kalguksu in Jongno District, central Seoul. [LEE JIAN]

An easily accessible tteokguk restaurant is Gohyang Kalguksu inside Gwangjang Market in Jongno District, central Seoul.  
Their main dish is kalguksu or knife-cut noodles, which the stand is actually quite famous for. The noodles have even been introduced on Netflix’s food docuseries “Street Food Asia Seoul” produced by the creators of “Chef’s Table."  
But also on its menu is tteokguk — one regular and the other with dumplings, both of which cost only 5,000 won ($4). 
Served steaming hot in a tin bowl, this tteokguk makes you forget you are sitting outside in the middle of January.  
The most distinct taste is the black pepper generously sprinkled on top, giving the soup a slight kick and an overall fresh, spicy aroma.
The main ingredients of the broth are dried shrimp, anchovies and dashima or dried kelp, along with a mix of some ten other vegetables, according to Cho Yon-soon, 61, the owner of the stand.  
It is the same broth used in the stand’s kalguksu, so if you liked the noodles, tteokguk is a variation that you can enjoy during the Seollal holiday.  
Inside the broth are slices of soft garae tteok, dried seaweed, green pumpkin and onion.  
If you order the tteokguk with dumplings, Cho asks you to choose between meat and kimchi filling. I asked for a mix of the two kinds and received two of each in my soup.  
The dish is served with sides of two kinds of freshly made kimchi — baechu or napa cabbage and yeolmu or radish kimchi.  
Gwangjang Market’s food stands are open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in accordance with the current social distancing rules. The market will remain open during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays. 
2. Saebom Tteokguk and Noodles
Maesaengi Oyster Tteokguk at Saebom Tteokguk and Noodles in Seodaemun District, western Seoul. [LEE JIAN]

Maesaengi Oyster Tteokguk at Saebom Tteokguk and Noodles in Seodaemun District, western Seoul. [LEE JIAN]

One of the very few restaurants in Seoul that actually specialize in tteokguk, Saebom Tteokguk and Noodles in Seodaemun District, western Seoul, describes its food as “slow, natural and healthy.”  
“We take our time to serve each bowl with care and use healthy and natural ingredients from Korea,” reads the restaurant’s note on the table.  
As a tteokguk restaurant, this eatery provides a range of tteokguk that are riffs of the original soup.  
The different soups’ price points vary widely as well, from its cheapest beef tteokguk costing 10,000 won to its most expensive live abalone tteoguk for 23,000 won.  
But the most popular, according to the employee at the restaurant, is the Maesaengi Oyster Tteokguk, priced at 13,000 won.   
Rich in calcium and protein, maesaengi is a type of seaweed that is very thin and soft.  
Despite the distinct green hue that it gives the soup, maesaengi itself doesn’t have a powerful taste and has barely any bite. It does, however, gives the soup a subtle flavor of the ocean which is also established by a generous number of plump oysters.  
For more texture, the soup contains chopped leek and shiitake mushrooms.  
The broth is achieved by boiling various vegetables and a dried pollack head every morning.
But this soup’s real pièce de résistance is its premium tteok.  
Made with the best selection of rice from Chungcheong area in the south of Seoul, Saebom tteokguk’s rice cakes are more firm than soft, with a sweet flavor of rice that can be tasted in each chewy bite.  
To accompany the soup, the eatery serves an assortment of sides including baechu kimchi and dongchimi or white radish kimchi.  
Saebom Tteokguk and Noodles is open from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday and Sunday. On Saturdays, it is open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. It will be open during the Lunar New Year holidays. 

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]
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