This post originally appeared in the August 23, 2021 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
Tteokbokki — chewy, plump rice cakes, swimming in a pool of spicy, tangy sauce with fish cakes — is one of my favorite dishes, bringing me a sense of comfort and childhood memories. But, the more I eat tteokbokki, the more I realize its sauce — slightly thick yet glossy, coating all the rice cakes beautifully — is similar to pasta sauces like vodka sauce, or tomato sauce, or any cream-based pasta sauce (or anything that’s so saucy that you can eat it without the pasta, just with a spoon). That led to a lightbulb moment: Why don’t I treat rice cakes like pasta? As an experiment, I tossed rice cakes into some leftover ragu. The starch from the rice cakes naturally thickened the sauce, similar to how pasta water would bring noodles and sauce together. And the result was immaculate: The rice cakes kept their bouncy, chewy texture, and even absorbed extra flavors from the sauce.
Restaurant chefs have been doing this for a while, but ever since my own Italian-Korean mashup, incorporating rice cakes into pasta sauce has become my go-to move. There are two types of rice cakes: ones made with wheat flour, called mil-tteok, and ones made with rice flour, called ssal-tteok. (Mil-tteok will mostly be found in the freezer, and ssal-tteok will be in the fridge section). I recommend using mil-tteok for saucier pasta recipes, such as arrabiata, vodka, and ragu, since the texture of mil-tteok will remain chewy and not overdone no matter how long you cook them.
You can play with different shapes for a saucy rice cake “pasta,” too: Some are cylindrical, others pre-sliced and coin-shaped. Another popular shape is called joraengi tteok, which looks like a tiny snowman, with two spheres attached to each other. I personally prefer cylindrical shapes when tossing with pasta sauce, just because they are similar in length and design to penne and rigatoni.
Rice cakes also work great with oil-based pasta: Take spaghetti aglio e olio, in which cooked strands are tossed in flavorful, garlicky olive oil. This simple, classic pasta doesn’t take too long to put together with a few ingredients, but the rice cake version has an extra layer of texture: The rice cakes are lightly fried in the pan to golden-brown and crispy.
Since oil-based pasta already requires a copious amount of olive oil, aglio e olio tteokbokki is a fuss-free, one-pan recipe. Once the rice cakes are crispy on both sides, add your garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Instead of starchy pasta water, just add tap water, and the starch from the rice cakes will help thicken. The rice-flour ssal-tteok is ideal for oil-based pasta since it creates a crispy texture when pan-fried. If using ssal-tteok with sauce, be sure not to overcook, since it can become mushy. Also, coin-shaped rice cakes have more surface area than cylindrical ones, making them more suitable for oil-based recipes.
One of my favorite rice cake and pasta combinations lately is crispy rice cakes with pesto. Quickly toast them in the pan, and toss with pesto and a generous amount of Parmesan. It’s so good that even an Italian nonna will approve — but really, the possibilities here are endless.