Mountains of snow and icy clouds: Korean Bingsu 빙수

Anyone who tried it won’t forget the refreshing experience of eating this typical Korean dessert: Bingsu.

Milk-based Bingsu garnished with persimmon and jujube (daechu 대추) at Oknumong 옥루몽, Seoul 2017.

What is Bingsu? What is Patbingsu?

So you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it yet?
Let me TRY to explain it in words…

  • Spoonfuls of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bliss.
  • The ultimate cool-down for tongue and tummy.
  • Your [childhood] dreams about catching snowflakes with your mouth come true. (This snow actually tastes GOOD!)
  • Fantasies of eating fluffy, frozen clouds floating in the sky. Of course those clouds are icy! It’s cold up there!
  • … [I better stop here, before my sugar-fueled imagination takes my mind to even stranger places…🤪]

Anyways, the name “bingsu” itself seems rather unexciting, it translates simply to “frozen water” based on the following Sino-Korean characters:
氷 frozen, snow (bing 빙) ❄️
+ 水 water (su 수) 💧

Likewise, the origins of bingsu seem to relate to actual snow which has been sweetened with things such as honey or fruits.🍯🍓 Hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago. But eating freshly fallen snow is a custom that has been observed in various cultures. Today, desserts similar to bingsu exist in other countries – with varying toppings and different names.* The characteristic of Korean bingsu, then, is combining ice with a sweet sauce made from red beans called pat (팥). Hence, patbingsu (팥빙수) may be the most common name for the Korean dessert. 🇰🇷

But Korean bingsu has drastically developed within the past decades.

Food stall displaying image of old-style bingsu. Buyeo, summer 2019.

At least since the 1950s, the “frozen water” was garnished with diversifying ingredients. As modern Western-style ingredients became more easily available and fashionable, soon milk or cream was poured over the ice and condensed milk was used as an additional sauce, beside the classic red bean paste.🥛 Common other toppings included pieces of rice cake🍡, fruit jelly🍊, canned fruit cocktail🍍, corn flakes🌽 and perhaps also those pricey imported nuts🥜. To top things off, bingsu could be crowned with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream🍦. Adding a cherry🍒 in the center would eventually complete it – at least in the eyes of Korean singer Yoon Jong Shin (윤종신), who expresses his love for the dessert in the song Patbingsu (팥빙수, 2007).

Considering these toppings, bingsu can hardly be appealing to vegans. 🚫🌱 Sometimes it is not even veggie-friendly if gelatin-containing fruit jellies are used! 🐖 Still, when bingsu was made following the old-fashioned method, it was possible to customize orders and request to omit specific unwanted toppings.

However, in recent years, bingsu has been evolving radically. It is changing not just in terms of ingredients as new toppings and flavors are constantly being created, but also thanks to technical progress. The regular crushed ice, which is (easily) produced by strong blenders, is being replaced by frozen liquids which are processed by high-tech machines. Depending on the machine, bingsu comes in various textures ranging from snowflakes🌨 to fluffy layers of thin ice.❄️ The most common base for this ice, however, is not pure water anymore. 🚫💧 Instead, it is a blend of sweetened dairy🥛, which may be additionally flavored with fruit extracts🍓, chocolate🍫, green tea powder🍵 or similar aromas.

.

What does Bingsu taste like? What types of Bingsu are there?

As a consequence, there is an endless diversity of bingsus now. Naturally, there exists patbingsu, which today is a milk-based shaved ice with red bean paste. Beside the classic pat topping, there are variations with and without pat, e.g. fruit bingsu, green tea bingsu, injeolmi rice cake bingsu, chocolate bingsu, and so many more. These names describe the main flavor and most distinct ingredients of any given bingsu. If it’s called “strawberry bingsu” (ttalgi bingsu 딸기빙수), then expect strawberry topping. “Oreo bingsu” is garnished with Oreo cookies (maybe also crumbles of Oreos underneath the milky ice). A “green tea patbingsu” (nokcha / geurinti / malcha patbingsu 녹차/그린티/말차 팥빙수) is a tea-flavored bingsu with red bean topping.** You get the idea.

Only when something is labelled as “old-fashioned bingsu” (yennal bingsu 옛날빙수) or “traditional bingsu” (jeontong bingsu 전통빙수), it gets a bit confusing. Eventually, you may end up with different things. Either it is a bingsu with a potpourri of toppings similar to those described in Yoon Jong Shin’s homage to patbingsu: Red bean paste, (canned or fresh) fruit, cornflakes, (ice) cream and some type of sweet sauce (condensed milk, chocolate sauce and/or fruit jam). Alternatively, the bingsu is held rather simple and subtle – toppings are limited to red bean sauce (and maybe some rice cakes, soy bean powder or similar things for garnish) on a milk-flavored base. This kind of bingsu is normally less sweet and aims to accommodate people with an “old-fashioned” or “conservative” taste – generally elderly people or so-called purists. Yet another type concerns the texture of the frozen base: Apart from toppings, the term “old-fashioned” may refer to the “old” way of making bingsu with crushed ice. To be more precise, ice cubes are cut into more or less small pieces by a blender or a similar machine. The resulting consistency is not quite as fine and watery as a slushy but it is rather grainy, so you can see and feel individual pieces of ice. Hence, you will be able to chew ice crystals and there is a certain crunch to it. This stands in stark contrast to modern versions of bingsu which are produced using modern bingsu-machines.

Patbingsu garnished with slices of chestnut at Jangkkobang 장꼬방, Seoul 2019.

Now, this is actually were the REAL bingsu talk may begin.

Bakery Cafe offering various flavors of Bingsu in two different textures: Soft shavings versus ice. Seoul, summer 2019.

Contrary to bingsu with grainy texture, which may be referred to as “ice bingsu” (eoreum bingsu 얼음빙수), the consistency of most modern bingsus exhibits a high level of fineness. There is no need for chewing (except for chunky toppings), since the frozen particles instantly melt in your mouth. The texture is soooooo soft! Varying with the type of machine, the shaved ice comes in differing shapes and sizes. Most popular is the one which transforms milky liquids instantly into tiny ice crystals reminiscent of powdery snow, called “snowflake” (nunkkot 눈꽃) in Korean. There are also bingsus featuring elongate pieces of shaved ice looking like short, hollow sticks, although this is a rather rare variety. At some places, the frozen base has a texture as soft and fluffy as cotton candy. This kind comes second to the “snowflake bingsu” (nunkkot bingsu 눈꽃빙수) and is largely referred to as “planer bingsu” (daepae bingsu 대패빙수), since it is created from planing frozen substances to acquire flat, elongated wooden ice chips. In a similar method, thin layers are cut off from a block of ice and the shavings are eventually sweetened with drizzles of (milky) sauces to make bingsu.
[An extra section dealing with the quality of bingsu may be added later.]

Overall, modern bingsus have a more polished look compared to the rustic, old-fashioned ones. While some contemporary bingsus are modestly garnished with one or two ingredients, there are varieties which are equipped with an imposing assortment of toppings. Again, a potpourri of sweet treats but on a whole different of level. 🔼🆙️ There are bingsus which feature ice cream🍦, are decorated with shavings of chocolate🍫, filled with cookies🍪, have a piece of cake on the side🍰 or are garnished with macarons🍬. Just to name a few of the common toppings. Apart from those, you can encounter bingsu dressed up in cotton candy or adorned with tapioca pearls… or powdered with cheese…🧀 [No kidding.]

Let’s be honest, when it’s time for dessert but you can’t decide on which one, what better choice is there than bingsu? 🍧 Because you can have multiple desserts AT THE SAME TIME!!!🍭🤩 Everything your sweet-tooth loves is combined literally inside one single dish: hyper-pimped Korean bingsu. 🍧💫 Edible makeup and glitter as sugary (chocolate) sprinkles. 👄 Dessert decadence. [More on food and fashion in contemporary South Korea here.]

.

How to eat Bingsu and where to find it

First of all, bingsu is normally not eaten alone. ❌👤 It is a dish, that is shared in company, as a special treat or dessert after a proper meal. [Exceptions due to individual circumstances may apply.] While single-serving bingsus are available at some coffee shops these days, the regular bingsu size is calculated to serve two or more persons. ✅👥 So if you want to eat bingsu, you need to find a friend who is willing to share it with you. [Or whom YOU are willing to share it with.] Anyways, this explains the question of “How many spoons do you need?” (숟가락 몇개 드릴까요?) which normally follows an order of bingsu. The average price of 9000 KRW to 15.000 KRW for one bingsu also suggests that it is [originally] designed to feed several persons.

Advertising Bingsu menu as “Summer Snow” in Seoul 2019.

Once you recruited your bingsu-buddy and have a bingsu-date, the next thing you need is actual bingsu. 👫🍧👬🍧👭 So where do you find bingsu? During the summer time, bingsu is available at most coffee shops (curiously enough, not [yet?] Starbucks), bakery cafes as well as certain fast food chains in Korea. These locations normally have eye-catching advertisements for their bingsu creations, so you cannot miss them. ☀️🍧⛱ At some point in the year, however, they will disappear from the seasonal menus and won’t show up until next summer. But rest assured! There exist various places which offer bingsu throughout the year, including bingsu specialty shops! 🌨🍧☃️

Next, how do you eat bingsu? What is the proper way of eating bingsu? This has been a polarizing topic ever since. It is beyond doubt, that the one and only tool is a (long) spoon. 🥄 But there is discussion about the order and technique of eating bingsu. Some begin with stirring the bingsu to properly mix the toppings with the frozen base. These people represent the “mix-eaters” (bibyeomeok 비벼먹). As a consequence, the carefully assembled bingsu, which may have resembled a mountainous landscape of sweet treats, is instantly transformed into a colorful mush spotted with chunks of various shapes and sizes. 🏔 ➡️🤮 Opposed to this, there is the faction of the non-mixers, the so-called peomeok (퍼먹) – literally “scoop-up-eaters”. Their technique involves eating bingsu roughly from top to bottom, which means each bite has a different taste depending on the topping they scooped up. In general, the mixing technique is most prevalent among fans of the old-fashioned bingsu. Non-mixers seem to possess a pronounced sense for visual aesthetics as opposed to the mix-eaters, who prefer an even taste over appearance. [Better choose your bingsu-party wisely to avoid conflicts!] Furthermore, even among non-mixers, there are various strategies for tackling the frozen mountain. While some dig towards the center eager to find the treasures hidden inside (some bingsus are filled!), others shovel even layers off of their bingsu. The difference is that, in effect, the vertical digging eventually causes the cave of shaved ice to collapse, whereas the horizontal excavation technique may create a bottom layer barren of flavorful toppings.

Another thing regarding the consumption of bingsu are additional toppings. Some locations serve bingsu with a complimentary sauce on the side, e.g. extra condensed milk, cold espresso or green tea sauce. This is to ensure that consumers are able to enjoy leftover shaved ice with the proper flavor. According to personal preference and with granted permission (!) from your bingsu-buddy, pour the sauce over the bingsu and thus control the level of sweetness in your bingsu.

Last but not least, a final point that deserves consideration when consuming bingsu, is speed. ⏰ You certainly don’t want to let your bingsu melt into soup 🍲 and then go fishing for chunky bites. 🎣 Or do you??? And if you gobble it up too quickly, you might experience “brain freeze”⚡️, although it’s not as easy to get with bingsu as it is with slushies, frozen smoothies or milkshakes.🥤 At least attempt to find an adequate pace.

Long story short, there is no right or wrong way of eating bingsu, as long as you enjoy it.

.

🌱 Is Bingsu vegan? How to get vegan Bingsu 🌱

The brief answer to above question is:
No. Bingsu is not vegan by default. 🚫🌱
But there are ways for you to still get a taste of bingsu!👇

In general, vegans may have initial difficulty partaking in this part of Korean food culture. However, you can make your own vegan bingsu with your good-old blender or a food processor that is strong enough to cut ice cubes or frozen fruit. In essence, the formula for home-made, old-fashioned bingsu is simple: Crushed ice topped with whatever sweet treats your heart may desire. The finer you manage to crush the ice, the smoother the texture of the final bingsu.

Otherwise, if you want to eat out with friends in Korea, there are the following options…

  • a) Find a location which offers old-fashioned bingsu AND speak enough Korean to customize it by omitting any dairy or possibly egg-based toppings. 🗣🇰🇷🚫🥛🥚🍪🍦🍰🍫 (Warning: Plain, crushed ice with fewer toppings may be considered to taste bland by shop keepers. 🤷‍♀️🤷‍♂️)
  • b) Find a coffee shop or bakery cafe that uses non-dairy substances (e.g. fruit juices) for their frozen base. ❄️🍊❄️🍓❄️🍍 Again, you need to confirm that the toppings are vegan, too. (In case of high sensitivity or allergies, be aware that there may be traces of dairy left on the machines.)
  • c) Pilgrimage to a vegan coffee shop. At present, there is literally only a handful of cafes in Seoul, which offer bingsu made with plant-based milk instead of dairy. 🌱🥛 You can find a list of locations here. Some of these locations use bingsu-machines which produce high-quality snowflake consistency – a texture impossible to achieve at home unless you own the [expensive] professional equipment.

After all, enjoying 100% plant-based, vegan bingsu is a challenge but no impossibility! 🌱🍧💚

.

.

.

Notes by the author

* Just to mention a few, there’s the American ‘snow cone’ and Hawaiian ‘shave ice’. Chinese versions are called “bàobīng” (刨冰) or “[hóngdòu] shābīng” ([红豆]沙冰) [with red beans], and the Japanese variant is referred to as “kakigōri” (かき氷).

** There are people, who dislike the sweetened red bean paste (pat 팥) or have an allergy against beans and legumes, hence the common distinction in the name.

Advertisements

Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan Bingsu

Summer is supposedly over, the traditional Korean calendar announced ‘the onset of autumn’ (ipchu 입추 立秋) already on August 8, 2019. 🍃 But temperatures are still high – somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius or 85 degrees Fahrenheit. ☀️🌡💦 It is still pretty hot. It is still a weather that demands for cool, refreshing drinks and ice cream or gelato or bingsu (빙수) or all of it… 🍹🍦🍨🍧 Don’t you think? 😎⛱

I’ve been cafe-hunting this week and ate so many frozen desserts in a row… 🤪 Never had a better excuse to eat ice cream and bingsu so that now I am able to present the following: A new page added to the category “Eating Out in Seoul” featuring our all-beloved frozen desserts in its various shapes, colors and textures…….👇

➡️ 🍓🍨🍦 Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan bingsu 🍧❄️🍍 ⬅️

❄️🍓❄️🍒❄️🍑❄️🍌❄️🍋❄️🍊❄️🍐❄️🍎❄️🍏❄️🥭❄️🍍❄️🥥❄️🥝❄️

Yes, ice cream, bingsu and other frozen treats are THIS important.

For easy-to-go ice cream, which you can find in regular supermarkets and convenience stores, simply refer to this list on a previous post.

[I know I’m an addict. But I also know I’m not the only one. 😜]

Easy-to-go vegan ice cream in Korea

These days, I often find myself thinking “Need… water… need… ice…” 🌡☀️😵

In an unstoppable impulse to find something that would quickly bring relief ❄️, I rummaged through various ice boxes, looking for ice cream. 🍦 (To be more precise, those of the popsicle kind – the “single servings”.) While checking the loooong labels with TINY letters on the colorful packaging, its contents were on the verge of melting [unforgivable sin!] and it felt like I would soon get more than just strange looks from shopkeepers… 😅

Even when something looked like it was a simple, water-based popsicle, its ingredient list surprisingly often revealed that there was some kind of animal component hidden inside. Beside mysterious additives for sweetness🍭, aromas👅 and color🌈, there was milk powder🥛, dairy-based calcium🥛 and gelatin🐷 [yikes!]! And sadly enough, those ingredients were not always marked in the allergen section. 🚫📝

Furthermore, even if one kind of ice cream contained only plant-based ingredients, that didn’t mean that another flavor of the same kind was also vegan. 🚫🌱Seriously each one needed confirmation.

🍦 It can be hard to find good ice cream.

But who thought the hunt for VEGAN ice cream would be this difficult and frustrating? 🌱🍦

[Whether the available vegan options are delightful after all, is a whole new topic…😣]

Anyhow, here’s a collection of meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free (though not guilt-free) vegan ice cream, which are commonly sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

✍️ This compilation is valid in summer 2019 and may gradually expand as (hopefully) new discoveries are made. ✍️

I’m an ice cream junkie, I know. 🍦🍨😍🍧❄️

If you have more time, money and patience to go to a (vegan) cafe that serves vegan ice cream, congratulations. Enjoy that blissful moment for me, while you’re at it!

So where ARE those cafes with vegan ice cream? 🍨 They are rare and more expensive than regular ice cream places… 💲😓 Currently, there exist merely a handful of such locations in Seoul. You can find an overview of sit-in locations serving various kinds of home-made frozen desserts on this page. 🛋💁‍♂️🍨🙋‍♀️

And what do YOU do in the heat of summer, when you don’t have access to your freezer (which is ideally filled with frozen fruit) but you are in desperate need of that sweet and refreshing cool-down THIS VERY INSTANT??? 🌊🤯❄️

[This is a serious question. Very curious about other survival strategies.]

Names of common allergens in Korean

Here is a compilation of sources of food allergens, which provides their Korean names as well as their most common spelling on Korean food labels. It is sorted by type of allergen and its origin in food – rather than being in alphabetical order. In addition to that, it distinguishes between animal-based and 🌱plant-based foods, so that vegetarians and 🌱vegans can use this page for reference more easily.

Please note, that there exists NO globally accepted, standardized group of food allergens. For each country, there are varying foods which are considered to contain “critical” substances. In the US🇺🇸, for example, only 8 foods are officially declared as allergens, while Canada🇨🇦 lists 10 foods. As opposed to that, the EU🇪🇺 acknowledges 14 foods to cause allergies or food intolerance and requires those to be specifically marked on food labels. [see EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC), page L 304/43.]

Regarding South Korea🇰🇷, a new legislation requires substances which may incite allergic reactions to be mentioned separately on the packaging of foods. Correspondingly, Korean food producers are required to declare at least the following substances:

  • pork 돼지고기
  • beef 쇠고기
  • chicken 닭고기
  • mackerel 고등어
  • squid 오징어
  • clams 조개류
  • crab 게
  • shrimp 새우
  • eggs 난류
  • milk 우유
  • peanuts 땅콩
  • soy 대두
  • wheat 밀
  • buck wheat 메밀
  • walnuts 호두
  • tomato 토마토
  • peach 복숭아
  • sulfites 아황산류 (if SO₂ content in the final product is higher than 10mg/kg)

On the lists below, those substances, which are officially declared on Korean food labels are highlighted in bold letters. You can find tips on how to easily understand such food labels (even though they are written in Korean) in a previous post.

Old food label without clear declaration of allergens. Note the warning in white letters: “People sensitive to allergies are advised not to consume this product.”
New food label mentioning allergens from milk, soy, shellfish (oyster) and pork.

Aiming to share more comprehensive information, this page features foods that may not be standard allergens in Korea but in various other countries. Hence, there are foods which are not explicitly declared in the allergen section of Korean food labels. For people with a high sensitivity to allergens: Potential allergens, which are not distinctly marked, I have added an exclamation mark in front of the respective food source. After all, consulting the entire list of ingredients (and possessing adequate language skills) may remain the safest way to confirm the contents of a given food item.

🐷 Meat and flesh-derived products 🍗🥩

  • 🐖 돼지고기 doeji gogi – pork (pig)
  • 🐄 쇠고기 / 소고기 so gogi – beef (cow)
  • 🐑 양고기 yang gogi – mutton (sheep)
  • 🐕 개고기 gae gogi – dog meat
  • 🐓 닭고기 tak gogi – chicken (poultry)
  • 🦆 오리고기 ori gogi – duck meat (waterfowl)

🐟 Fish from fresh water and sea water🐠🐡

🌱Attention for vegans and vegetarians: Not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging!!!

  • 🐟 생선 saengseon – fish
  • 🐟 고등어 godeung-eo – mackerel
  • ! 멸치 myeolchi – anchovy (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 참치 chamchi / 다랑어 darang-eo / 가다랑어 gadarang-eo etc. – tuna (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 꽁치 gongchi – mackerel pike (not explicitly marked)
  • 정어 jeongeo – sardine
  • … The amount of edible fish in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐚 Seafood – shellfish and cuttlefish 🦀🐙

  • 🐚 조개류 jogaeryu – mussels, clams (mollusks) ➡️ the respective specie may be additionally listed in brackets
  • !🐚 소라 sora / 고둥 godung – sea snail (mollusks) (not explicitly marked)
  • 🦐 새우 sae-u – shrimp (crustacean)
  • 🦞 랍스터 rabseuteo – lobster (crustacean)
  • 🦀 게 ge – crab (crustacean)
  • 🦑 오징어 ojingeo – squid, sepia (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 문어 muneo – octopus (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 낙지 nakji – small octopus (cuttlefish)
  • … The amount of edible seafood in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐝 Insect-related products 🐛🦋

  • ! 🍯 꿀 kkul / 벌꿀 beol-kkul – honey (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 사양꿀 sayang-kkul – industrially produced honey (bees fed with sugar water) / 천연꿀 cheonyeon-kkul – naturally produced honey (bees fed on flowers)
  • 🐛 번데기 beondegi – silk worm pupa
  • ! 🐝 밀랍 milap – bee’s wax (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 🐞 쉘락 swelak – shellac (not explicitly marked) ➡️ food glaze based on secretion of lac bug ➡️ used in e.g. jelly beans, confectionary sprinkles or chocolate-coated snacks
  • ! 🐞 카민 kamin [old: 카르민 kareumin] – carmine, cochineal, 🇺🇸natural red 4, 🇪🇺E120 (food coloring) (not explicitly marked) ➡️ red food colorant made from cochineals (scale insects) ➡️ used in e.g. cosmetics, red syrups, alcoholic beverages with red color

🐔 Eggs and albumen 🥚🍳

  • 🥚 난류 nanryu – eggs (from various birds)
  • 🥚 계란 gyeran / 달걀 dalgyal – chicken egg
  • 🥚 메추리알 mechuri-al – quail eggs

🐮 Dairy, milk protein and milk sugar (lactose) 🥛🧀

  • 🥛 우유 uyu – milk

🌱 Legumes, peanuts and soy 🥜

  • 대두 daedu – soy
  • 🥜 땅콩 ddangkong – peanut
  • kong – beans
  • 완두콩 wandu kong – green pea
  • 병아리콩 byeongari kong – chick peas

🌱 Tree nuts and seeds 🌰

  • 🌰 견과류 gyeon-gwaryu – nuts
  • 헤이즐넛 heijeulneot – hazelnut
  • ! 아몬드 amondeu – almond (not explicitly marked)
  • 호두 hodu – walnut
  • 피칸 pikan – pecan nut
  • jat – pine nut
  • ! 캐슈넛 / 캐슈너트 kaeshju neot / kaeshju neoteu – cashew nut (not explicitly marked)
  • 브라질너트 brajil neoteu – Brazil nut
  • 피스타치오 piseutachi-o – pistachio
  • ! 마카다미아 makadami-a – macadamia nuts (not explicitly marked)
  • 🌰 밤 bam – chestnut
  • ! 참깨 chamkkae / 흑임자 heuk imja – sesame / black sesame (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 겨자 gyeoja – mustard (not explicitly marked)

🌱 Gluten-containing cereals and other grains 🥨🍺

  • 🌾 밀 mil / 소맥 somaek – wheat
  • 🌾 호밀 homil – rye
  • 🌾 귀리 gwiri – oat
  • 🌾 보리 bori – barley
  • … Other gluten-containing cereals, namely spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains are not common in Korea.
  • ! 🌽 옥수수 oksusu – corn, maize (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 🍚 쌀 ssal – rice (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 백미 baekmi – white rice / 흑미 heukmi black rice / 현미 hyeonmi – brown rice)
  • 메밀 memil – buckwheat
  • jo – millet
  • 수수 susu – sorghum

🌱 Fruit and vegetables 🍍🍎

  • 🍅 토마토 tomato – tomato
  • 🍑 복숭아 boksung-a – peach
  • 🍑 살구 salgu – apricot
  • 🍑 자두 jadu – plum
  • 🍌 바나나 banana – banana
  • 🍒 체리 cheri – cherry
  • 🍓 딸기 ttalgi – strawberry
  • !🍏 사과 sagwa – apple (not explicitly marked)
  • 🍐 배 bae – pear
  • 🥝 키위 kiwi – kiwi
  • 🍈 멜론 melon – melon
  • 🍍 파인애플 painaepeul – pineapple
  • 🥑 아보카도 abokado – avocado
  • 🍆 가지 gaji – eggplant
  • 🥦 셀러리 seleori – celery
  • 🎃 (단)호박 (dan) hobak – (sweet) pumpkin

🍄 Others 🧪💊

  • 타트라진 tateurajin – tartrazine, 🇪🇺E102 (food coloring)
  • 아황산염 ahwang sanyeom / 아황산류 ahwang sanryu / 이산화항 isan hwahang – various types of sulfites (food preservative)

✍️ Work is still in progress! This list will be expanded gradually! ✍️

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback are welcome! 🤗

Tips on how to understand Korean food labels

Trust me, I know… Learning a language can be hard, it can take a lot of time and effort to master it. And it requires constant training to keep your language skills polished. At first, a foreign language may seem like a barrier.

A typical food label in Korean contains a lot of information, but it can appear confusing.

BUT! Language is also a tool. In terms of dietary restrictions or personal preferences, it is a vital piece of equipment when searching for what you and your body need. So in this regard, it’s a survival skill. Especially in a country like Korea, foreigners do not have access to certain areas of its culture and life without understanding the local language. 🇰🇷 To provide examples regarding food, most restaurants do not possess international menus and food labels are written in Korean. On top of that, few people working in the food sector have a good command of foreign languages, so asking them for detailed information may be difficult. 🚫🇨🇳🇬🇧🇯🇵

But you know what? You don’t have to possess advanced Korean language skills, when hunting for food!

For now, it’s enough if you are able to read Korean. Korean language uses a writing system which is not complicated! First off, it’s an alphabet. This alphabet is referred to as hangeul (한글) and it consists of only 22 letters! That’s less than the Latin alphabet, which is used (in adapted form) in contemporary English, Spanish, German, French, Italian etc.! If you have mastered the Latin alphabet, the Korean alphabet will be as easy as pie! 🍰

When you know Korean letters, you have the skill to read (and write) Korean words. That does not mean that you automatically understand their meaning, but you can read them aloud or write them using a more familiar writing system. For instance, you see the word 고기 and you know it’s read as “gogi“.

Congratulations! You now possess the skills to read Korean menus as well as the ingredients printed on food items!

Next, all you need to know is how to spell the food you want to avoid. If you check one item’s ingredient list and you spot something you do not want to consume, then you can stop deciphering the rest. Saves you time! [Find what you CAN eat by eliminating what you cannot. Basic routine of ‘picky eaters’…]

But there is an immense diversity of words for food! The list of ingredients and the corresponding list of vocabulary may appear endless! Especially today, where we distinguish between things such as dextrose, oligosaccharide and glucose-fructose-syrup, beside honey and [plain white refined] sugar. And then, there is a wider array of food sources in general, resulting in lists specifying e.g. corn starch🌽, potato starch🥔, tapioca starch🍠, water chestnut starch🌰 and modified starch…

Does that mean you need to learn all these words in Korean???
No.
A few basic words will suffice!
If you know that “gogi” means meat🥩 in Korean, then you can avoid anything containing the word “gogi“. This includes 돼지고기🐖, 쇠고기🐄 , 닭고기🐓 and so forth. You know right away, that these letters describe meat.* Simple, right?

Depending on the type of diet you are following, there are different words that will be of interest to you. Basically, knowing that set of Korean vocabulary is enough. Pescetarians🚫🥩 and people eating hindu🚫🐄, halal or kosher 🚫🐖 are probably fine knowing meat-related vocabulary. To this, vegetarians can simply add words regarding fish, seafood and insects.** 🚫🐟🦑🐛 For vegans, the list will include meat, fish, seafood, insects, eggs, dairy and honey. 🚫🥩🐟🦑🐛🥚🥛🍯 Someone with gluten intolerance may consider studying words denoting wheat products and the likes. 🚫🌾

Does it seem to get complicated again?

How to understand food labels written in Korean – the easy way!

Here’s good news: Recently, labels on Korean food items have become more comprehensible. While food (and bio-chemical) companies are constantly creating new food items, “magical” food additives and confusing names for ingredients, food labels are getting longer and longer. Sometimes, the ingredient section of the food label is not even printed in a legible way! However, reading the entire list and understanding each single word written in Korean is not necessary to determine whether something is vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free! On newly designed food packages, there is now an additional notice, which was introduced for people with allergies. Essential information!

Next to the (detailed) list of ingredients, there are a couple of words which are normally highlighted by a different color, written inside a separate text box or otherwise visibly marked. It may look something like this:

Note the characters 함유 (hamyu), which mean “contain” or “include”. And then pay attention to whatever is written in front of it. This is where the key sources of ingredients containing potential allergens are briefly mentioned.

In above example, the food item was produced with ingredients which originate from milk (우유 uyu), peanuts (땅콩 ddangkong), egg (계란 gyeran), wheat (밀 mil), beef (쇠고기 sogogi) and soy (대두 daedu). In other words, it contains allergens from dairy🥛, egg🥚, gluten🌾, legumes🥜 as well as cow meat🐄.

Spotting critical ingredients in food products can be this easy!***

Curious what food item is made from this combination of ingredients? In case you were wondering, here’s the answer:

They LOOK like chocolate-filled cookies shaped like edible little (base)balls. 🍪 They possess the PROMISING name “Home Run Ball” (홈런볼). ⚾️ And they contain quite a number of “interesting” ingredients. 😯 But what’s beef got to do in there? That’s exactly what I was wondering, too… 🤯 By the way, the “함유-listing” is not to be confused with the disclaimer mentioning that the item was produced in a factory processing other foods and therefore may contain traces of those. Beef in the form of beef tallow / suet (우지 uji) is specified among the actual ingredients!

As you can see, there are no real excuses for not learning Korean! At least some.
Come on, sit your bum down already and learn those 22 Korean letters! And then make your very own set of Korean vocabulary. That’s perhaps no more than a dozen words. The rest is practice and application in real life!

Why you need to be able to read Korean on food labels

And there will be tons of opportunities for you to train! In daily life, you will be able to use your skills regularly! Because you technically need to check the label of every food item! Even if you find one thing that is vegan/vegetarian, a different food company may possess a different recipe using animal products.

Just to give you some examples, oftentimes, there is gelatin hidden in yogurt and candy, most bakery products contain dairy, and fish sauce or anchovy powder are common ingredients because they ‘enhance the flavor’. There are even noodles, which consist of powdered egg shells or ground shellfish! [Why??? 🤔] In addition to that, large and international brands adapt their recipes to the local taste, so familiar foods such as oreo cookies taste less sweet and contain components of dairy (whey powder and lactose) in Korea. [Oreos are NOT VEGAN in Korea!!! 😱]

Oreo cookies listing wheat, milk and soy as allergens.

What are the benefits of learning how to read Korean food labels?

If I haven’t made my point clear enough already, let me put it this way:
It’s a vital skill that enables you to identify food. It gives you the freedom to decide what you purchase and what you consume. It’s for more independence and self-determination with regards to your diet and lifestyle.

Best is: You can start out by studying the Korean alphabet by yourself, without signing up for Korean classes. You also do not need to worry about pronunciation, yet. For the beginning, it’s enough if you can quietly read and understand the basics. There is no need to bother memorizing massive amounts of vocabulary. Simply focus on what is important for your survival in Korea’s food jungle.

Eventually, when you go shopping for groceries or search for snacks at a convenience store in Korea, you can check the food labels on your own. Do apply your newly acquired skills in real life! Then you will quickly improve your reading skills and grow accustomed to the necessary vocabulary. Don’t forget that, after all, practice makes perfect.

Additional notes by the author

*) Here’s a wonderful exception to above rule: The word 콩고기 (kong gogi) translates literally to “bean meat” and denotes meat imitations based on soy, seitan (wheat protein aka gluten) or a mixture of both. In other words, it’s a vegan alternative to real meat. Important vocabulary, nevertheless! But not necessarily something you might want to avoid, unless you dislike processed foods overall.

**) Yes, insects! Traditional Korean cuisine is not actually characterized by insects, but there is one common street food item, which is made from the pupa of silk worms: Beondegi (번데기).

***) Unfortunately, not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging. Thus, this technique does not serve as the universal tool to rule out non-vegan or non-vegetarian foods. As a rule of thumb, however, fish products🐟 are normally not added to sweet food items.

Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… 🤓

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (찰토마토), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (카페 엘딘) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (토마토주스) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everything… In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (천은사) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” 🤓 Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. 💚🍅❤️

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the movie Shall We Dance (1937).

Language of food

For learners of 🇰🇷Korean language🇰🇵, Korean foodies interested in improving their
🇬🇧English skills🇺🇸 or anyone fascinated by 🥢food culture🍴, I’ve decided to add another page to this website: Korean Language of Food.

Language as well as food, both are expressions of a country’s culture. Hence, by getting to know this aspect of Korean culture, it helps in understanding and experiencing it more deeply.

There will be common phrases used in context with food, ideas for communicating your food preferences and corresponding vocabulary. 

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback will be welcomed! 🤗

Meeting Potatoes in Korea

You may find boiled potatoes boring as a side dish🥔, but you love french fries🍟. And a bag of chips miraculously disappears when you watch a movie. 📺

Thinking you know potatoes? 🥔

You’ve probably had potatoes in all kinds of ways:
Boiled, mashed, baked, roasted, fried, cooked ‘au gratin’…

You also know there are various kinds of potatoes: Potatoes with white or yellow flesh, covered with brown or pink skin. There exist even blue potatoes! Sweet potatoes, yams and regular potatoes are not the same thing either.*) 🥔=/=🍠

Congratulations, you know a lot about potatoes. 👍

But have you ever had potatoes the KOREAN WAY? 🇰🇷

You shall experience potatoes from a totally different perspective in Korea.

Firstly, potatoes are not considered a staple food as in Western cultures. Here, the staple food is rice. Period. 🍚 Potatoes, on the other hand, are rather enjoyed as a snack in between meals. How? On their own. Plain. What? Just potatoes. Steamed. [Did you ever think of steaming potatoes before?] Right, steaming is an option of preparing food, remembering that now. Koreans also boil potatoes in water just like Westerners do. Still something seems odd. Without any seasoning? Well, yes. Sugar. WHAT?

This is how I encountered potatoes in Korea for the first time: Grandmother brought us a tray with steaming hot potatoes, next to it was a bowl of white sugar. We were supposed to peel the potatoes with our hands and then dip them into the sugar. This was in the 1990s. In other families, the potatoes may be entirely coated with sugar before serving. While this seems like an old-fashioned way of preparing potatoes, this snack is still available at some street stalls. Plain potatoes to go. 🥡 Yay!
Alternatively, another popular snack, which is sold as street food are small potatoes, that have been peeled and fried in vegetable oil until partially golden brown. These little spherical potatoes (normally referred to as algamja (알감자) or tong-gamja (통감자)) are served with sugar or salt and eaten with toothpicks or wooden skewers.

Various snacks sold on the street: Fried potatoes served with brown sugar, cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, boiled eggs, peanuts, bell pepper, Korean melon etc.

Furthermore, potatoes are treated somewhat like vegetables. One vegan side dish (common in restaurants and at home) is made from thin slices of potatoes fried together with julienned carrots and onions in vegetable oil (gamja bokkeum 감자볶음). Another veggie-friendly side dish consists of potatoes, which have been cooked in a soy sauce-based brine (gamja jorim 감자조림). Once, I’ve even seen potatoes served raw in a noble Korean restaurant – very finely sliced and bedded on a sweet-and-sour sauce. So basically, when potatoes are served as a side, you have starch to accompany your bowl of rice, which is served as the staple. 🍚➕🥔 Hooray!

Following this scheme are also developments regarding modern foods in Korea, i.e. foods with recent Western origins. Let’s talk pizza and say “pija” (피자) for Korean pizza. Forget Italian pizza. Think American pizza plus K-pop. In Korea, they put french fries on pizza. 🍕➕🍟 Potatoes are in fact a common topping on Korean pizza – especially when you order the vegetarian option. Order your veggie-friendly gamja pija (감자피자) for double indulgence. And to properly top things off, go to one of the Korean pizza places, where you can add sweet potato cream as a topping around the crust. 🍕➕🍟➕🍠 Don’t feel like pizza? Then there’s also the option to get a veggie-friendly burger at Lotteria (Korean version of McDonalds or Burger King), which is filled with – guess what – a hash brown! Who needs a burger patty alternative, if you have potatoes?! Oh and don’t forget to order french fries as the side! 🍔➕🥔➕🍟

If this is too much greasy decadence for your taste, how about a salad? 🥗 Contemporary Korea also offers potato salad – called gamja saeleodeu (감자샐러드). How to make Korean potato salad: Take a regular potato salad with mayonnaise dressing, mash everything with a fork until it’s an even paste with tiny pieces of vegetables (and occasionally ham), and then shape the mass into pretty balls using an ice cream scoop. To be frank, I have not thoroughly studied recipes on how to make Korean potato salad. But that’s what it looks like. Whatsoever, I have done research on how it is consumed. (In other words, I have more experience eating it!) How to eat Korean potato salad: 1) Enjoy it as a side dish next to your bowl of rice, while eating with chopsticks. 🍚➕🥔➕🥢 2) Place one scoop of potato salad in between two slices of toast and make a sandwich. 🥪➕🥔. Apart from that, you can find it at the salad bar of buffets, ready for you to assemble your own healthy, vitamin-packed, light salad creation. There may be more ways of serving Korean potato salad, but those are the ones that stuck in my mind the most. By the way, you can find this salad also ready-made in super markets and convenience stores, normally next to sweet potato salad and pumpkin salad, which have similar consistency.

After all, if we continue considering potatoes as vegetables, above equations appear to make sense. Right? At least a little bit…?

“Milk Blended with Potato” at Starbucks in 2019.

As recipes are continuously diversifying, let me tell you about the most recent food trend happening at Starbucks. The current summer 2019 menu includes “Milk Blended with Potato”, which is essentially a milkshake topped with flakes of potato chips and drizzles of cheese sauce. After pizza, fries, sandwiches and salads, it was indeed time for dessert! 🥛➕🍦➕🥔 This concoction tastes very sweet in the milky base but salty, greasy and cheesy on top. 🧀Good luck on getting your brains to accept this combination! (I failed and couldn’t finish it. 😖)

Vegan potato tteok (gamja tteok 감자떡) made from potato starch and filled with sweet bean paste.

Apart from these “curious” ways of consuming potatoes,**) there are many other dishes featuring potatoes in Korea. They are used as ingredients in various foods, ranging from stews to soups, noodles, dumplings and dessert – too numerous to list all. Definitely worth mentioning are potato pancakes as well as potato tteok, which are classical Korean dishes. Both are mainly made from potatoes and entirely vegan.🥔🌱

After all, potatoes are very versatile and they are used in multi-fold ways all over the world. In Korea, you can discover new cooking methods of potatoes. It seems like you are meeting a totally new food!
🥔🤝😊
Hello, Mr. Potato! Nice to make your acquaintance!
“감자씨, 안녕하세요? 처음 뵙겠습니다. 만나서 반갑습니다!”

Fresh potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots in a supermarket in Seoul, June 2019. Note the proportions.

Additional notes from the author:

*) In Korea, there is already a strong distinction between potatoes (gamja 감자) and sweet potatoes (goguma 고구마), as demonstrated in their respective names.

**) Termed “curious” from the perspective of the author, who has grown up in Germany, a country famous for its consumption of potatoes. Thus, based on personal background and experiences, the depicted customs regarding potatoes in Korea seem unconventional and novel in the eyes of the author. There is, however, absolutely no intention to judge what the ‘proper way’ of enjoying potatoes is (doubtful whether such a rule existed anyways).

Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.

Triple P: Gamja-jeon 감자전

Korean potato pancakes served with dipping sauce.

Three syllables:

gam 감.
ja 자.
jeon 전.

Three ingredients:

– potatoes
– salt
– vegetable oil.

What does this result in?

Three words:

Pure
Potato
Pancakes.

In other words, gamja-jeon is a type of Korean pancake, which mainly consists of potatoes. The pancake batter does not contain eggs 🚫🥚 nor cereals 🚫🌾, making this dish originally vegan and gluten free. In short, finely ground potatoes are fried on a hot pan or iron plate in plenty of oil, until they turn slightly brown. The final pancakes are either cut into small pieces or served whole, after which they may be individually torn into bite-sized portions using chopsticks. Since the batter itself is hardly seasoned, these pancakes come with a corresponding dip, which is based on soy sauce, and are thus a savory dish.

Gamja-jeon roughly resemble hash browns🇺🇸, German Kartoffelpuffer🇩🇪 or Swiss Rösti🇨🇭, but upon looking closely, the ingredients, way of serving, taste and texture of each are different. Even inside Korea, there will be variations regarding the size, toppings, thickness and texture of this type of potato pancake. 🥞🥔 Only rarely are there other vegetables added to the basic potato batter. Hence, an alternative name for this dish could be “plain potato pancake”.

Where to find:
In Korean culture, gamja-jeon is a dish typically (but not necessarily) consumed in combination with alcohol, thus it belongs to the food category anju (안주). 🍶 Correspondingly, these potato pancakes are mostly found in Korean pubs, which offer traditional liquors such as makgeolli (막걸리 – rice wine) or soju (소주). But it is absolutely not obligatory to drink alcohol to enjoy these! In Korean pubs, the food is expensive and the drinks are cheap, so it’s okay to order only pancakes, which cost between 10.000 and 15.000 KRW per serving. Just be aware of the fact that Korean pancakes are customarily shared and snacked on while drinking in company 👥 – this is also why their price is higher than non-anju dishes in regular restaurants. In either way, make sure to enjoy the pancakes while they are hot (and crispy)! 🤤 They taste slightly different at each location and peoples’ preferences vary. Personally, I like gamja-jeon best, when the outside is crispy and the potato dough is chewy inside! It’s one of my comfort foods – greasy, savory and crispy – something I crave especially after a hangover… 🍻🤪💥🤢

Thick, medium-sized potato pancakes decorated with chili

After all, gamja-jeon combines also these three concepts in one:
🥞 Pancakes
🥂 Drinking
🥔 Plant-power (👉 vegan🌱).

Maybe I should add a few more “p“s to its title…