Have you ever had a shop, restaurant, or a specific landmark that you wanted to visit more than once on a trip abroad? Like the first time just wasn’t enough to get the full experience, whether it was because you were pressed for time on your first visit, or it was so good that it didn’t matter what else was on your list, you just HAVE to go back for a second (or maybe even third) visit? One such place for me was the Jilsiru Tteok Café and the attached Tteok and Kitchen Utensil Museum, located in the Insadong/Jongno area.
For those of you who have been reading for a while (probably like, 2 people max), you know how much I absolutely adore tteok. If food could be a spirit animal, tteok would be mine (with bacon/pork belly being a very, very close second). So when I learned that there was such a place as a café that serves exclusively tteok and a museum about its history to boot, I knew I had to make time for it.
Sadly, I didn’t make it back to the Tteok Café a second or third time. The first visit left me wanting more, and I’ll explain why in stages. I was still trying to recover from the awful cold I’d caught on Jeju Island, which had progressed to the “persistent cough” stage by this time, the type of cough that likes to hit in random fits at the most inappropriate times (i.e. smushed with several people on a packed subway train).
They have the the loveliest display of the most varied types of tteok I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like being in tteok heaven for me and I wanted to try all of them. But I had to pace myself because I was meeting with my cousin for lunch in a couple of hours and I didn’t want to repeat The Great Bulgogi Breakfast Mistake. So to start off with, I couldn’t even indulge myself in ALL THE TTEOK, but that was due to my poor planning. You can make your selection and take the tteok to go, but we decided to dine in. You take a basket and fill it up with your selections. It was during this time that one of those coughing fits hit me so hard, I had to hand my basket over to Mark and excuse myself outside, lest I cough my germs all over the tteok display. That would’ve been terribly uncouth of me.
Afterwards, you take your basket to the counter, and the hanbok-clad ladies will unwrap them onto plates and bring them out to you all pretty, like above. Because I had to hand my basket over to Mark to step outside, I didn’t get to fully take in the whole display and make a couple of other choices. Darn. Anyway, right before we dug in, I had another coughing fit. Oiy. It was one of those coughing fits that is so forceful, it makes your eyes tear up. At that point, I had to leave in search of a pharmacy to find some cough suppressants. The only thing I could find was a convenience store with some Halls, so I picked up a few of those and hoped that they would help somewhat. This cough was really ruining my tteok eating experience.
I only recognized a couple of the tteok from my childhood, namely the songpyeon (green and purple football-shaped ones), which are traditionally eaten during the Korean autumn harvest festival of Chuseok, and mochi (the pink ones), filled with sweet red bean. As a lover of all tteok, I’m probably too biased to even give my opinion on these, because I enjoyed them all. I found that they weren’t as sweet as the tteok I’m used to, which wasn’t a bad thing.
We also got some tea to go with our tteok. Their tea selection is varied and the items looked quite interesting. They each seem to have different health benefits. I got the plum tea (good for fatigue, which I was feeling in spades), which had a wonderful balance of sweet and sour.
Mark got the pumpkin latte, which is less like the western counterpart and more of a savoury drink.
We also got an order of the Royal Court Tteokbokki, which is the style of tteokbokki that the King used to eat. Rather than the fiery, red hot spicy sauce that you normally see on tteokbokki, the King’s version is soy sauce based. My mom actually used to make this type of tteokbokki for me when I was growing up because I couldn’t handle spicy food. It really brought back those childhood memories of my mom’s special tteokbokki just for me.
After our tteok meal, we headed for the adjoining Tteok & Kitchen Utensil Museum, located above the café. The great thing about dining prior to the museum visit is that you can use your receipt to get free admission. Not that the admission is terribly expensive though (around $3). The only thing the sullen looking ajusshi manning the museum desk told us what that we weren’t allowed to take photos (dawww).
At this point, we were pressured for time, so we did a very quick round of the displays, which were filled with replicas of all the different types of tteok. I’d say we only spend 5 minutes in total, so maybe it was good that we got free admission? On our way out, we saw a group of school kids, possibly around Grade 2 or 3, getting a lesson on the history of tteok given as a gift to newlyweds. It would’ve been interesting to stick around to hear about it (or rather, have either Rachel or Jason listen in and translate it), but alas, it was not meant to be that day.
The combination of not being able to fully enjoy the tteok because of my sickness and going through the museum so quickly is what made me want to go back. Unfortunately our schedule didn’t allow it, so it’ll have to wait until my next visit.
I think tteok is one of those things that you either love or hate, but if you’re in the mood to have a traditional cultural experience, the Tteok Café and Museum gives you just that.