Rice Cake Hospitality, or how to get free tteok

One of the things you can find almost everywhere in Korea is a rice cake called tteok (떡). It's a dense cake made from steamed, compressed rice flour. There are hundreds of kinds in dozens of colors, but one of the most common is found at street stalls everywhere. It's called tteokbokki (떡뽁이), and I love it. It's basically just tteok in a spicy sauce. Let's be honest, it's the sauce I love, but the tteok is nice, too. 

Leveling out rice flour to be steamed.

Anyway, I was on one of my long walks this weekend, and I passed by the open door of a business where an elderly couple caught my eye. They were standing over wooden boxes  evening out piles of what looked like confectioner's sugar. After a quick look around the shop (and logically deducing that they weren't doing anything with 100kg of sugar) I figured out that they were in the process of making tteok. I had missed the part where they ground the rice to fine flower, but the rest of the process was to come.

After a few minutes they noticed the strange white man with a curly mustache and don't-hit-me-yellow hat staring at them through the door. After a few more minutes, the lady beckoned me in, ushered me into a dilapidated stool, and continued with her work. They seemed to find it amusing that I was so interesting in something that must be so commonplace to Koreans. 

Laying tubes onto a drying rack. Steam boxes can be seen in the background with a cloth over the top.

Soon after I was seated, the man began to move the boxes of rice to a steaming table. There he would let each box sit for 60-90 seconds on its own before setting another box on top of it. He continued the process until about six boxes of flour were stacked. Then he moved the top box to another steaming tray, stacked the next box on top of it, and so on until he had essentially inverted the stack. By this point, the first box was apparently ready, and he flipped its contents onto a metal tray with two largish holes in the top. Underneath the tray were two cylinders with screws inside: screw extruders.

As the man got to work, his wife (I assume) began asking me questions. In Korean. I could answer none of them. Her husband helped a little, as he apparently spoke more English than she did, which got her the answers to some of her questions. Other questions were asked and answered in less-than-fluent body language. Apparently, I answered to her satisfaction because she then offered me coffee and a tangerine, then settled down into a comfortable silence as we both watched her husband work.

For the first few batches, every time the husband had some excess, he would hand me a large chunk of tteok to eat. After the second one, I tried to refuse, but it was handed to me anyway. I have to say, I'm not usually the biggest fan of raw rice cake, but if you get it fresh, it's pretty awesome. I'm also pretty sure I took in about 2000 calories in one sitting.

Forcing a block of steamed rice flour through the extruder into water.

Separating the long tube into more manageable pieces to dry.

The wife asked if I was a photographer, and I showed her what portion of my portfolio I keep on my phone. She seemed very impressed. She also seemed nearly incapable of understanding how a smart phone works. Perhaps there's an age limit for how "intuitive" touch screens are.

This is only 40 tubes. 

After taking a few photos, I had another question to ask the couple. I had noticed how quickly the husband worked, how deftly he moved, and how sure his actions were. I had to know: how many of these tube things do they make a day? Once again, it took me a while to explain what I was asking, but when they understood, I was floored by their answer. The woman, not knowing the number in English, brought back three bills, and held them out for me to see. "Sam-chun. Sam-chun," she said, pointing at the number on each bill, then holding up three fingers.

Three thousand. They make 3000 of these tubes. Every. Day.

After the husband finished his last batch, I thanked them for their hospitality, and bowed out. I'd never seen rice cakes made before, but I have a new appreciation for tteok and the men and women who make it every day. Now I just have to find out how they made it back in the day.

Until next time, happy misadventures.


PS: Since I first wrote this, I did some math. I sat and watched the couple make about 120 tubes in about an hour. At this rate, they could only produce 960 tubes in an 8 hour day. I think there may have been some miscommunication, and she meant that they produce 3000 tubes per week. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. Who knows, though. Maybe I just saw them working at a leisurely pace. Still, she seemed pretty insistent that their daily production was 3000.