Honey or no honey?
This question does not only concern vegans in Korea.
But for vegans, this subject is particularly confusing.
The question of what is honey and what is not, is material for a multi-layered discourse.
To begin with, the Korean term kkul 꿀 basically means honey. 🍯 But not everything that is called ‘kkul‘ actually contains honey. Such is the case for many fruits which are sold as ‘honey apple’ 🍏 (kkul sagwa 꿀사과) or ‘honey strawberries’ 🍓 (kkul ttalgi 꿀딸기). There exist even ‘honey chestnuts’ 🌰 (kkul bam 꿀밤) or ‘honey sweet potatoes‘
🍠 (kkul goguma 꿀고구마), which are sweeter than normal! The word is simply added by producers or vendors to emphasize their superior, honey-like taste. In other words, “kkul” functions like a quality label.
Next is the phenomenon that some Korean food items are equipped with the word ‘honey’ simple because they resemble it. Common examples are filled 🥞pancakes (hotteok 호떡) as well as 🍡Korean rice cakes with syrup filling (kkul tteok 꿀떡). In making these, the combination of (brown) sugar, cinnamon / sesame and heat results in a liquid which is golden in color and sweet – reminiscent of honey. Historically, honey has been a precious ingredient in Korea and accordingly, its name is used to add value to foods, even though they may not actually contain it. This applies also to dishes such as Korean confectionery gangjeong (강정) and yugwa (유과) as well as toppings or dipping sauces, which use traditional rice syrup (jocheong 조청), oligosaccharide syrup (olligodang 올리고당), glucose-fructose syrup (aeksang-gwa dang 액상과당) or corn syrup (mulyeot 물엿) as the sweetening ingredient. Sometimes people (proudly) proclaim that their products contain ‘honey’, but after multiple inquiries or checking the ingredient list, it turns out that merely honey-like substances such as those above have been used in the manufacturing process.** Once again, ‘honey’ is a tag suggesting food quality in Korea.
Apart from this, Korean honey – especially honey from cheaper brands – is accused of not being derived from flowers. This issue is widely known and has been criticized for years, yet it is a common practice among industrial honey producers. Basically, industrially raised honey bees are (partially) fed with a substitute (a kind of sugar syrup) instead of flying about in search of flowers. Accordingly, the honey these bees produce does not originate from the nectar gathered from plants. 🐝🚫🌻 Honey which has been produced in a natural but more strenuous process, is necessarily more expensive. 💲 How do you know what kind of honey is used? Check the ingredient list on the food label! The Korean word for this industrially produced honey is 사양[벌]꿀 (sayang [beol]kkul), while the naturally produced honey is commonly referred to as 천연[벌]꿀 (cheonyeon beolkkul).
Yet, it is difficult to judge the quality of honey based solely on its label or price, as scandals and chemical analyses suggest. Since production methods and the quality of common Korean honey are strongly debatable, even some non-vegans abstain from mass-manufactured honey. *
In processed foods, items are particularly prized when ‘real honey’ is one of their ingredients. Due to the high cost of pure honey, however, oftentimes the final product contains only a small portion of honey. Other sweeteners and aroma are largely in charge of imitating the taste of honey. In particular, confectionery such as dagwa (다과) and yakgwa (약과) as well as sweet Korean teas (e.g. jujube tea 대추차, yuja tea 유자차, ginseng tea 인삼차) are traditionally prepared with honey because of its ascribed health benefits. But nowadays you may find that they contain honey only in low quantities or none at all. In short, regardless of advertisements, honey is generally not used in large amounts because it is expensive.
Eventually, the word ‘honeyed’ seems appropriate in describing foods which exhibit characteristics similar to honey. It is often ambiguous, whether it refers to real honey or an alternative. The origin being either animal-labor or processed plant materials is vague for the most part. So how can you tell whether something contains honey? In case checking the label is not an option, asking the cook, staff or vendor directly may be. If this is too difficult because of language barriers, or the resulting answer does not seem trustworthy, avoiding things labeled as ‘honeyed’ entirely appears to be the safest way.
On a side note, the notion of honey being a good thing is also present in contemporary Korean language: A colloquial expression to wish someone a good night is “꿀밤!” (kkul-bam) or “꿀밤 보내!” (kkul-bam bonae) which literally translates to “(Have a) honey night!”. 🌛🍯🌃 Another instance is saying “꿀팁” (kkul-tip), which can be translated as a “honey tip” or “honey hint”.*** 💡🍯👍 [A recent variation of this is 귤팁 (gyul-tip) which originated among Korean vegans and means “tangerine tip”. 🍊🚫🍯]
*) Concerned consumers purchase honey only from trusted (private) sources. Instances of scandals, reports of angry customers etc. are numerous online. Keyword search for “fake honey” (gajja kkul 가짜 꿀) in Korean.
**) Rather than language difficulty, I’m starting to believe that this is due to general lack of knowledge. Similarly, I occasionally encounter people who claim that their products do not contain any sugar. Upon asking why they taste sweet, the response is that they use honey or some kind of syrup. No sugar? Right…
Update: 2020-12: In this Korean YouTube video a doctor points this out as a marketing strategy.
***) The author is not sure how exactly these slang terms have evolved. They might have something to do with seeing honey as the epitome of “sweetness”, so 꿀밤 and 꿀팁 may translate to “sweet night” (similar to the English idiom “sweet dreams”) and “sweet tip”, respectively. Alternatively, 꿀 may derive from the cute (?) pronunciation of 굿 (gut) or 굳 (gut) which is Konglish [hybrid of Korean and English] for the word “good”. 꿀밤 and 꿀팁 may accordingly be word plays on “good night” and “good tip”.