Lee Sang-hyo, director of the Topokki Food Research Institute
By Kim Sue-young
What first crosses your mind if asked about Korea's representative snack food?
Many foreigners and Koreans would think of the combination of rice cake and fish stick doused in red pepper paste, ``topokki (ddeokbokki).''
It is spelled as ``ddeokbokki'' in accordance with the government's Romanization, but the Topokki Food Research Institute (TFRI) spells it as the former.
Topokki is easily found at snack bars that line the streets of Jongno, central Seoul, and from street vendors who populate crowded areas.
Its spicy aroma and strong red color tempt passers-by who have empty stomachs and thin wallets.
Now, moves are in motion to make the commonplace snack food ― priced at between 2,000 won ($1.50) and 4,000 won ($3) ― charm people around the world with the help of academic research.
Standardization 'Key' to Globalization
Just an hour from Seoul is a two-story research and development (R&D) center, two plants and large outdoor cafe, all for topokki studies.
The TFRI has just opened with 800 million won ($530,000) in funding from the Korea Rice Foodstuffs Association in a bid to boost falling rice consumption and globalizing topokki.
Lee Sang-hyo, a 49-year-old rice expert who heads the institute, is seeking to globalize the snack food.
``Like Italy's pasta, topokki can be transformed into various foods by mixing rice cake and sauce,'' he said during an interview with The Korea Times last week. ``Besides, everybody loves it. It has the high possibility of becoming a global food.''
Both rice cake and sauce are Lee's areas of study.
``The red pepper paste sauce is too hot, spicy and pungent to some Westerners who are not accustomed to their taste,'' Lee said. ``What's more, the sticky texture of rice cake may not appeal to foreigners, except for Chinese and Japanese, who've enjoyed it.''
Thus, the researchers at the TFRI, he stressed, are making an effort to create a range of sauces and rice cakes.
There are no rules on how to make the food and how to serve it, which, he believes, opens up more avenues for the snack food to become a global food, following ``kimchi,'' the nation's favorite, and ``bulgogi,'' barbecued beef marinated with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and garlic.
Lee claimed that it is important for successful globalization to standardize the food and open chain restaurants to sell topokki based on a manual.
``By standardizing a topokki recipe, cooking tools and the way of serving it, I think it could soft-land as a popular food around the world,'' he said.
The institute is also seeking to give the spicy refreshment only one spelling in order to avoid confusing foreigners.
``We gained tips from various people, including two linguists and two marketing experts. We learned through a face-to-face survey on foreigners living in Korea that topokki is easy to pronounce and most similar to its original pronunciation,'' he said.
The institute is now trying to register the chosen moniker as an official name in the influential Webster's Online Dictionary.
The food is first mentioned in a two-volume cookbook published toward the end of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
However, scholars speculated that Koreans might have cooked topokki even earlier in history, because the nation began to produce rice and process it into rice cake from the period of the Three Kingdoms (B.C. 57-A.D. 668) ― Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla.
Then, topokki was not red and spicy as it is now.
The snack food was spiced with soy sauce and stir-fried with vegetables and beef and was actually a cuisine served to royal families.
Considering that pepper was introduced after the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-1598), the current pepper paste used for topokki is believed to have arrived later.
At first, it was mainly fried with plenty of oil on thick iron pans after being mixed with pepper paste.
It has since constantly evolved and currently boasts more than 40 different recipes.
Added ingredients give dozens of names to topokki, with the delectable additions including seafood, ramyeon noodle, chopped beef, ribs and other foodstuffs.
The food is mainly spiced with pepper paste sauce, some sugar and salt, but a range of sauces color topokki.
It can be stir-fried with chunjang, or black soybean paste, soy sauce, tomato sauce and even curry.
To lessen the hot taste, topokki topped with mozzarella and cheddar cheese can be baked.
Future of Topokki
Lee highlighted that topokki should first shrug off its negative image of being ``unhygienic'' in a bid to stand as a global food fully capable of competing with other cuisines, like that of Thailand.
``Truly, it is considered a cheesy snack food sold by street vendors or at traditional markets, but not an opulent cuisine, which is an obstacle to globalizing it,'' he said.
``Our aim is to research the food and eventually make it great enough to have chefs at five-star hotels proudly serve it to customers.''
As part of efforts to promote the food, the two-day Seoul Topokki Festival 2009 will open this Saturday at the aT Center in southern Seoul.
Co-organized by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the KRFA, the event will feature various topokki and give people an opportunity to share information on ingredients and the food itself.
Visitors can also enjoy a cooking contest, which is expected to show a range of new fusion topokki. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.topokki.com or call (02) 503-5044.
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