Korean Sweet Rice Cakes
Hi readers. I’m currently on my way back from vacation, so from afar, I’m delighted to introduce this post, by Carly Diaz, one that’ll transport us to the kitchens of Korea. It’s a recipe for gyeongdan–Korean sweet rice cakes–and a story about learning to love them.
The first time I tasted sweet red bean paste, I nearly choked. It was the summer of 2006, the air was thick with humidity and the sound of cicadas. Everywhere around me were bright lights, loud music, street carts, and hired girls dancing in front of an electronics shop as part of the grand opening celebration. I had recently moved to Seoul in a post-graduation flurry and planned to spend the next 12 months writing, applying to grad schools, and teaching English.
In my defense, I was given the bean-filled pastry and told it was the Korean-version of a cream-filled doughnut. Instead of a light cream, I received a mouthful of thick beans. And not just any beans. Sweet beans. It would not be the last time that an unfamiliar taste heightened the sense that I was in foreign territory. That first taste of sweet red beans marked the slow transition of the unfamiliar to the familiar. Over the next year, the wholly unfamiliar world of South Korea would become one that I navigated with relative ease, one bite at a time.
In September, during the Korean harvest festival Chuseok, I was confronted with the sweet red bean paste again when I received a box of songpyeon. The traditional moon-shaped Chuseok dessert is made with sweet rice flour and filled with the paste. I nimbly took a bite and found that I liked it. It wasn’t the kind of confection I had grown up with, but there was something about the sticky rice cake and the subtly sweet, earthy, protein-y richness of the red beans that appealed to my acclimating taste buds.
Rice flour and red beans are used in a myriad of ways in Korean kitchen, from desserts to savory snacks. The popular street food ddeokkkochi is essentially unsweetened rice cake on a stick, slathered with a delicious spicy sauce. Take sweetened rice flour, and you get the base for a sweet dessert. Red beans are often used as a filling for rice flour or bread pastries, or in red bean ice cream. There were opportunities to experience rice flour and sweet red bean paste around every corner. And soon, I learned that they were easier to make at home and began experimenting in my Korean high-rise apartment.
This version of sweet rice cakes follows a recipe for gyeongdan, which delivers the bean flavor in moderation and utilizes more easily accessible toppings that heighten the sense that you’re eating dessert. You could also experiment with other sweet toppings, such as cinnamon and sugar, chocolate sprinkles, or powdered sugar.
- 1 cup Adzuki red beans
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1½ teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 cups sweet rice flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ¾ cup boiling water
- 1 teaspoon matcha green tea powder
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, roasted and ground
- 4 tablespoon shredded coconut, roughly chopped
- Rinse the beans and soak overnight. The next day, drain and rinse again, then put in a pot with 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook until very soft (taste several to make sure they’re all soft). When the beans are ready, drain any excess water, transfer to a food processor and purée until smooth. Place the bean purée back in the pot, add the brown sugar, a pinch of salt, vanilla and cinnamon. Stir until warm and fully blended. Set aside.
- Place 2 cups of sweet rice flour in a bowl and add in the salt and sugar. Slowly add the boiling water and mix thoroughly until it forms a firm dough. When mixed through, set aside and prepare the toppings.
- Combine the matcha green tea powder with the sugar. Roast the black sesame seeds seeds until they pop, then lightly grind with a mortar and pestle. Place those in another bowl. Place the shredded coconut in another bowl.
- Take a portion of the rice flour dough and roll into a small bowl, about the size of a ping pong ball. Flatten into a bowl shape, about ¼-inch thick. Place a ½ teaspoon of sweet red bean paste into the center and fold the edges over. Pinch together at the creases to seal the red bean inside and roll back into a ball. Continue with the remaining dough.
- Fill a bowl with cold water and set to the side. Bring a pot of water to a boil and place the rice cakes in the pot making sure they don’t stick to the bottom. Once they float to the top, remove from the boiling water and place in the bowl of cold water. After a few minutes, set on a plate to air dry.
- Once the rice cakes are dry and sticky, place in the topping bowls, rotating the cake so that all sides are thoroughly covered. Continue until all cakes are covered, then enjoy!