Grandma's in no hurry to reveal secret

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Grandma's in no hurry to reveal secret

It's a cold-weather treat and a favorite especially of children and teenage girls. It's called tteokbokki, sticky cylindrical rice cakes mixed in a hot and spicy red bean paste. Shops and stalls selling the stuff are all over, but they are clustered on -- where else? -- Tteokbokki Street, in a modest neighborhood of Sindang-dong, near Dongdaemun.

Koreans have loved tteokbokki for over 50 years, not only because it is spicy, but because it is inexpensive. With cold weather coming on, more and more Seoulites are seeking out the delicacy, adding it to dumplings, eggs, noodles, tuna and tempura. Throw in what you want or what the vendor has, and finish it off with salty fishball broth.

"I would not give the recipe for tteokbokki even to my daughters-in-law," a woman said in a famous television commercial for red bean paste some years ago. The actress is Ma Bok-lim, now 82, who runs a tteokbokki restaurant established in 1953, the largest of 14 specialty diners that line the street.

Grandma Ma was there alone at first, but the competition moved in. At the peak in the 1970s and 1980s, there were 30 diners along the street, but the number has shrunk since then. Now the I Love Sindang-dong restaurant, right across from Ms. Ma's establishment, is her biggest competitor.

Ms. Ma's five daughters-in-law run the place. "The restaurant is going great, selling two to three thousand plates daily, even though my mother-in-law retired from the business," said Chun Eun-kyung, the eldest of the group.

The Ma Bok-lim restaurant has 72 seats in a bright but unsophisticated interior; even at 5 p.m. a few days ago, the place was packed. Two customers can dine for about 8,000 won ($6.70) with all the trimmings. The hot and spicy dish is served on black steel trays atop one-burner stoves at the tables.

"All kinds of guests visit and eat here, including American and Japanese tourists. Japanese travelers say they found this place through tour guide books," Ms. Chun said.

The restaurant has spun off a second restaurant right next door. To keep the geneology straight, it is named "The House of Ma Bok-lim's Son," and was also packed with customers.

"People say the financial status of our restaurants is as big as that of a mid-sized firm, but my relatives and I are just doing our jobs, making delicious tteokbokki and serving our customers," Ms. Chun said.

What is the secret recipe that the founder herself said she would take to the grave with her? Ms. Chun said she still does not know the recipe; Grandma Ma still makes the decisions on what goes in her bean paste even after her retirement.

"I will stick to this job until the end of my life. Maybe my stubborn mother-in-law will quietly tell me the formula to keep this business going," Ms. Chun said with a smile.

by Kim Hae-noon

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