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Making Korean Comfort Food: Spicy Rice Cakes & Kimchi Pancakes

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games and the Paralympics that followed it both played out in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Both games were praised for the way they were run and the example it set for unification and sportsmanship.  But for some of us, the Olympics may have sparked a bigger interest in understanding Korean culture.

Saehee Chang is the founder of Korea Konnect LLC, a service that educates people about Korean culture, society, music, and offers interpreting as well as translation services. Chang was recently featured on Lake Effect when she joined us to talk about several aspects of Korean culture. 

READ: 'We Have a Lot in Common': The Importance of Cross Cultural Education Beyond the Olympics

However, one thing that was left out of that conversation was Korean food, something Chang knows well.  Part of her Korean education business in the Milwaukee area is teaching Korean cooking classes.

Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski and Maayan Silver got a private lesson in Chang’s Whitefish Bay kitchen:

"I learned from my mom. She's my mentor for everything, but specifically for cooking," Chang explains.

Her family lived all of the world for her father's job, and she recalls how her mother cooked everyday using as many Asian ingredients she was able to find no matter what country they were living in. "I didn't appreciate it that much at that time, but now I can understand how much time and effort she put into her cooking."

Food, according to Chang, is everything from comfort and family, to connecting to her culture and memories. Two of her favorite dishes to make that remind her of living in Korea is spicy rice cakes (Tteokbokki) and Kimchi pancakes.

Rice is a staple in Korean cuisine, says Chang, and she loves spicy rice cakes because "it's like everything to me.  It's comfort food, and it's also street food. It can be eaten as a snack or a one pot meal and...it's really versatile and delicious."

The Making of Spicy Rice Cakes

Chang soaks a frozen packet of rice cakes for about 30 to 45 minutes. She says you can also use fresh rice cakes, which are ideal. You can find the frozen variety at most Asian food markets here in Milwaukee or order them online.

While the rice cakes finish soaking, vegetables are prepared. Chang notes that you can use whatever vegetables or even meat that you prefer. "I think Korean cooking and Korean food is so flexible and versatile, and I want you to use what you like, what you're going to eat, and be creative and have fun with it."

Credit Maayan Silver
Frozen rice cakes soak in water before being drained and cooked with prepared vegetables.

Once the vegetables are prepped, drain the rice cakes and heat up a wok or similar pan on the stove. Sauté the vegetables and a little bit of salt in two to three tablespoons of oil until they just tender.

“I keep it simple with the broth with onions, carrots, garlic, some water, and the Korean hot sauce," Chang says.

Add a little bit of soy sauce, one tablespoon of sugar, and reduce the heat to medium. If you prefer your rice cakes to be saucy, simply add more water. The liquid will slowly absorb into the rice cake, giving them more flavor.

Credit Maayan Silver
Spicy rice cakes, also known as Tteokbokki.

One of Chang's favorite memory of living in Seoul, South Korea is eating Tteokbokki to warm up after ice skating. "Every time there's a little ice skating area, there's always an elderly lady selling a big pot of rice cakes. So you warm up and you have this wonderful, chewy, spicy dish, and then you go back to the ice skating rink," she recalls.

Kimchi Pancakes

Another popular dish Chang likes to make is Kimchi pancakes.

Nearly every Korean family will have a big jar of kimchi in their kitchen, says Chang. The word "kimchi" simply means “salted vegetables” that are brined in salt and flavored with various dried spices, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce or some type of seafood.

"I think it's really important to learn how to make your own Kimchi - if you're Korean - because I feel like it connects me to my country and my culture again," she says.

For the pancakes, simply mix one cup of flour, one egg, one cup of water and one cup of kimchi. Chang also recommends adding some freshly chopped green onions before combining the mixture.

The batter is a little thicker than a traditional American pancake batter, but Chang says you can alter it to your preference. Cook the Kimchi pancake batter on a greased griddle or flat pan until the edges become yellowish in color – that’s when they’re ready to be flipped.

Kimchi pancakes can also be paired with a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, green onions, and chili flakes.

Credit Maayan Silver
Saehee Chang mixes the Kimchi pancake batter (left) before cooking it on the stove.

Chang encourages all people to explore different cultures through food since it's such an easy way to learn without leaving your own kitchen. "I love cooking," says Chang. "I think it brings people together."

You can find more Korean dish recipes here, learn about Chang's own Kosari Kimchi, and find the next Korean cooking class in the Milwaukee-area here.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.