Dessert of the rich and noble: Yakgwa 약과

Once upon a time, there was yakgwa, a noble and beloved treat, which contained the following basic ingredients:

  • white wheat flour
  • oil
  • honey

All of these ingredients used to be precious and expensive 💲, so for centuries, yakgwa was cherished mostly among the upper class and at court. Prior to the machinized age, producing white wheat flour involved a long process of removing the hulls and skin of wheat grains and then grinding the core into a fine powder. An effort which was not undergone for the normal man’s daily meal. On top of that, wheat was not as common as rice or other cereals. 🌾 Oil (especially sesame oil) as well as nuts and seeds were historically treasured for their nourishing powers. Honey, lastly, was not only appreciated for its sweet taste but also for the health benefits ascribed to it. 🍯 Occasionally, its dough was upgraded with exotic spices such as black pepper, ginger and cinnamon and decorated with expensive nuts and seeds.
With these ingredients, it was actually considered to possess medicinal properties. Hence one of its names is yakgwa (약과 藥菓), which can be translated as “medicine cookie”. 💊🍪

But today, yakgwa‘s image has drastically shifted:
As globalization has turned previously existing orders upside-down, so did also yakgwa not escape the influence of modern developments. Judging from contemporary tastes, this dessert is hardly sweet at all. One can taste a note of honey or syrup, but the level of sweetness is quite low in comparison to modern desserts such as milk chocolate, icecream or cupcakes. 🍦 Perhaps due to mass-production, honey is no essential ingredient anymore, so some store-bought yakgwa can be found as vegan versions. Also, yakgwa are now more prized, when they are “embellished” with additional rice flour instead of containing 100% wheat flour.

In fact, also its consumers have changed. Since most Koreans of the younger generation have grown up with foods that are automatically seasoned with sugar or corn syrup, they have a higher tolerance of sugar levels and prefer more intensely flavored desserts.
Beside the subtle sweetness, this confectionery bears only hints of ginger, pepper or cinnamon – if these spices are added at all. Hence, mostly elderly Koreans or people with an ‘old-fashioned’ taste are fans of this mild dessert. Also the consistency and fat content may not appeal to everyone as these deep fried treats are quite rich. Frankly speaking, due to its unexciting consistency and oiliness I was initially not very fond of yakgwa, but my interest is growing as I learn about its variations and historical background. After all, it seems that yakgwa is easily overlooked next to contemporary sweets, which are literally glistening in all sorts of colors of the rainbow, blasting attractive scents and intense flavors.

Veganized yakgwa, jujube tea and green tea latte at a Korean tea house
(Dahyang Mandang 다향만당 in Seoul)

In general, yakgwa is produced by mixing flour, oil, honey and optional spices into a crumbly paste. The dough is then pressed into molds or shaped by cutting it into pieces, which are then fried in oil. Finally, the fried ‘cookies’ are bathed in a syrup, so that they absorb the sweet liquid. The production process may be reminiscent of Arab culture’s baklava, but yakgwa are less sweet and have no sticky, syrupy sauce attached to it. After all, this dessert can be considered a type of confectionery, rather than a bakery product.
In general, there exist two main types of yakgwa today: The most common one, which is normally flower-shaped, has a soft and slightly chewy consistency and is referred to as chapssal yakgwa (참쌀약과) when it contains glutinous rice flour . 🌸 The other one is called Gaeseong yakgwa (개성약과) or alternatively mo yakgwa (모약과), when it has a square or rectangular shape. 🔲 This latter type of yakgwa has a more brittle consistency and consists of several layers of dough similar to millefeuille or pastries. 🥐

Yakgwa and other traditional sweets sold at a store producing rice cakes (tteok jip 떡집)

Where to find:
In regards with traditional customs, however, yakgwa still bears significance during holidays or (e.g. wedding, ancestral) ceremonies. Outside such special occasions, one can encounter it in daily life as well. However, this historical confectionary is rarely offered in modern coffee shops but in Korean tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통찻집), along with other traditional desserts and tea. Yakgwa are also sold individually or in boxes at supermarkets, snack stalls and the shops which produce rice cakes (tteok jip 떡집). While it used to be a luxurious dessert, it is now easily available and as affordable as regular snacks and sweets: One large piece costs around 1000 – 1500 KRW on average.

One thought on “Dessert of the rich and noble: Yakgwa 약과

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s