Yakbap (steamed sweet rice cake with nuts and golden raisins)

by Ben on March 22, 2010 · 13 comments

in Desserts, Index, Korean, Vegan

I‘m no dummy. When I see David Chang getting flak for not including more desserts in his book Momofuku, I know better than to make the same mistake. Consider this entry Dessert #1. (Now I just need to open a white-hot NYC restaurant, and I’ll be in business …)

Yakbap literally translates to “medicine rice,” though this dish is a far cry from the foul concoctions my mother had me drink as an ill child (which, on at least one occasion, included red potato juice.  Don’t try it.). Rather, yakbap is among the many varieties of dduk, each of which I was likely to sample one, two, perhaps seven times after church every week when I was growing up. The post-sermon release of food was always a major highlight of my week. Sometimes we had donuts, other times kimbap, and on certain occasions, bowls of yuk gae jang. But the gauntlet of dduk remained a welcoming constant. Those unfamiliar with dduk may recognize some of its other forms: “New Year’s cake” in Chinese cuisine; or Mochi ice cream, a staple of Trader Joe’s frozen confections. What they all have in common is glutinous rice (also called sweet rice) as the dominant component. This results in a decadently starchy texture that would cause any God-fearing Atkins dieter to recoil in horror.

I’ve always been a big fan of this dish. A couple years ago, I was tempted to buy some at the dduk counter at our local Korean grocery. My mother waved me off.

Don’t get that. I’ll make it when we get home.
Oh, for real? How do you make it?
You just put the rice in. Cook it.
I see …

I had to bug my Mom to make this several times, and she kept not getting around to it. So I consulted my trusty guide, Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, and found a recipe that looked to be a royal pain in the ass. It involved cooking the sweet rice first, tossing it in the seasoning, and then resteaming it in a makeshift double-boiler consisting of a breadpan and a dutch oven. This could not possibly be what Mom does. Indeed, when confronted with this information, she admitted that she basically does everything in a covered pot, carefully listening at the stove for when the rice is done. That also didn’t sound appealing to me. Sensing this, my Mom looked over at my rice cooker and suggested the brilliant.

Why don’t you just put everything in there and turn it on?

I did, and the yakbap came out perfectly. I’ve read other recipes online that involve the double-boiler method, pressure cookers, microwaves, etc. But in my mind, nothing beats being able to take an ordinary piece of equipment, set it, and forget it.

* * * * *

Yakbap (steamed sweet rice cake with nuts and golden raisins)
adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen: A Cookbook

2 C sweet rice
1 T soy sauce
2 T corn syrup, honey
or molasses
2 T rice wine or vermouth
1 T sesame oil (label bedragoned)
1 C walnuts, skinned; or chestnuts, cooked, shelled and skinned
1 C pitted jujubes (dates) or 1/2 C raisins
2 T pine nuts
1/2 C brown sugar
1 T ground cinnamon

A few notes on the ingredients:

  • Make sure you use sweet rice (glutinous rice, pictured above). You need the high amylopectin content of this type of rice. Other types of rice (which include a normal percentage of amylose) won’t be sticky, and will therefore not make dduk.
  • Many Asian markets now carry roasted, shelled chestnuts packaged in foil or mylar (pictured above). They are perfectly fine for this recipe, and for $1.19, the value of not having to roast/steam and shell chestnuts yourself can’t be beat. I thought my Mom’s head was going to explode the first time she saw these. She took about 10 packs back with her to LA.
  • For the dried fruit component, jujubes are more traditional, but I don’t prefer to use them because the peels have a tough texture. Raisins are a common alternative, and I used about half the amount recommended in the book. My wife doesn’t like raisins, so I have tried using currants before. They are wonderfully tart, but do not hold their shape when steamed. So they do get a bit messy.
  • Though they are significantly more expensive, I use pine nuts of European origin, lest I once again make my thesis co-advisor’s wife suffer from the dreaded “pine mouth” (sorry, Heidi).
  • **Update 24 October, 2010. I spoke with my mom about this post, and one tip she added was to use molasses instead of corn syrup or honey. This secret she carefully guarded for years, feeling that molasses was an ingredient that gave her dish a familiar flavor that other versions could not capture. I suspect that she used molasses as a proxy for maltose or rice syrup, which was not commonly available when she immigrated here. Any particular kind of molasses? The one with the rabbit on it. I tried this and found that it’s definitely not as sweet if you use only molasses. I’ll probably try molasses + honey next time.

* * * * *

Soak rice in lukewarm water for at least 1 hour. Rinse rice thoroughly about 3 – 5 times in cold water. With all types of rice, my Mom often says to rinse until the water is clear, but even she will acknowledge that this will not happen for a very long time. You can safely stop at 5. If you have a rice cooker, combine all ingredients, and add just enough water to cover. Press the button. 30 minutes, and one delicious-smelling house later, you’re done!

Serving I think it tastes best warm, and because it’s so dense, ramekins are a good serving vessel. Commonly, people will pack the cooked rice into a baking dish (grease it with a bit of sesame oil first), let it cool, and then cut into brownie-sized squares. It will keep nicely in the fridge for about a week, but I always nuke it for 10 – 20 secs to get it nice and warm before eating.

Additional tips This recipe makes a lot of yakbap. If you’re not going to a potluck, you can halve the recipe, as I did when making it for this post. However, keep in mind that with a medium or large rice cooker, a relatively thin layer of rice at the bottom of the insert is more likely to scorch or cook unevenly. Your alternatives are to use a small cooker, or cook on the stovetop in a smaller pan with low heat. The latter is the way my Mom does it, but this method requires a bit more attention to make sure you don’t burn the bottom. If you don’t feel that you added enough water during cooking (or if it dried out in the refrigerator), simply add a small amount of water and zap it for about a minute on medium.

* * * * *

The Esme rating I told her that I made special rice. She eyed it, suspicously.

I don’t want it.
Try it. It’s sweet.
I don’t want to try it. I don’t like it.
[takes bite] I like it. I like sugar. What’s this, daddy? It’s a chestnut.
Chess-nut. It looks like a little bit like chocolate. It tastes like chocolate, too. It’s a little bit like chocolate, Daddy.
Do you like chestnuts?
Yeah. I don’t want this anymore.

* * * * *

And now, a moment of bliss … 

sweet rice

korean yakbap in spoons

Share share

13 comments… read them below or add one

Ben March 24, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I’ll blush on Erin’s behalf: :”>

For this shoot, we had to rush home to catch some vanishing window light. Dish was actually prepared the night before, and reheated for picture-taking (and eating). Also helps to have a good prime lens that can open up to f/1.8.

But since we are also late nighters (often can’t do anything until after 8 or 9), I’m considering getting a softbox. Donna Ruhlman had a great post on mimicking natural light, but ever since Michael’s new format I haven’t been able to locate her posts in an organized way. I’ll let you know when I find it.

Deb Perleman has some more great tips here: http://smittenkitchen.com/2007/11/our-approach-to-food-photos/


Ben March 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Here’s the Donna Ruhlman post I was looking for:

No longer available on her website, for some reason.


Ben May 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

BTW finally found Donna’s photography blog, which is separate from her professional website: http://ruhlmanphotography.wordpress.com/ < --this is now defunct. Donna's posts are now archived on Michael's site: http://ruhlman.com/food-photos/

Very useful!


angi March 24, 2010 at 11:38 am

May I just say that the pictures on this post are gorgeous?! I love the texture + color of the tabletop/countertop and the lighting is just awesome. To date, I still can’t figure out how to get good lighting, especially since I mostly cook in the evenings. I have to steal some tips from you guys.


Amy March 24, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Yakbap is not a personal fave, but the pics make it look really yummy.

I LOVE the Esme Rating!


Ben March 24, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Esme would be mortified, but I kind of like it, too. 🙂


Ben March 24, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I also like how I can’t really assign a numerical rating (e.g., 3 Doras, 4 sippys, etc.). Given the entirety of her comments, it’s completely ambiguous.


Daisy Rhau March 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I was wondering if you were going to do desserts at all, given the conversation we had at Insalata’s in the years before children. If I remember correctly, you were saying that desserts are not dimensionally interesting, even when appealing. I was saying there’s something important about cooking according to the truth, Make It And The People Will Eat. Esme sounds like you.


Ben March 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm

You remember incorrectly. What I was saying was that desserts do not have to be dimensionally interesting in order for people to consume them. Therefore, market forces encourage mediocrity in desserts. More so than other courses, in my opinion (with the possible exception of “brunch” courses). However, when I eat at a restaurant with a well-regarded and/or talented pastry chef, I invariably try the dessert. If not, I skip it and eat more of something else.


sunmi October 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I think my mom just throws everything into a pressure cooker when she makes 약밥 — and it comes out delicious. I wonder if this would work with my 25-year-old rice cooker? ^^

Oh, and a cool presentation idea: my mom rolls out the 약밥 into little balls (sorta like 주먹밥) and puts them in muffin liners. Not practical for packing a 도시락, though.


Ben October 24, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Hi! If you soak the rice first, it should work fine in a normal rice cooker. And thanks for the presentation idea–that does sound pretty cool. 🙂


YY January 30, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I’ve been looking for a yakbap recipe and this one looks delish! I have a question on the procedure. It says to “add just enough water to cover”. How much water is that approx? I saw another recipe similar to this and it states 2 3/4 water. I used 2 1/2 and it came kind of watery. And ‘just enough water to cover’ seems too little. I’m thinking 2:2 cup ratio maybe. Does that sound about right (2:2)?


Ben January 30, 2011 at 5:18 pm

The reason I don’t measure it is that the rice has already been soaked–so you’re adding water to wet rice. Not a really precise measurement. You’re certainly welcome to try different ratios–I find that adding water to cover after soaking is just right. Hope this helps!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: