Once upon a time, there was yakgwa, a noble and beloved treat, which consisted of the following main ingredients:
- white wheat flour
Believe it or not, all of these ingredients used to be precious and expensive.💲 So for centuries, yakgwa was enjoyed primarily by members of the upper class and cherished at holidays and other important events. Prior to the mechanized age, producing white wheat flour involved a long process of husking, removing the skin of wheat grains and then grinding the core into a fine powder. An effort which was not undergone for the commoner’s daily meal. On top of that, in pre-modern Korea, wheat was rarer than rice and other cereals. 🌾 Oil (especially sesame oil) as well as nuts and seeds were historically treasured for their nourishing powers. Honey, likewise, was appreciated for nutrition, attributed health benefits and of course its sweet flavor. 🍯 Additionally, the flavor of yakgwa could be upgraded with valuable spices such as black pepper, ginger and cinnamon, and garnished with expensive nuts and seeds.
Because of these ingredients it was even ascribed medicinal properties, as suggested by the syllable “yak” in the name yakgwa (약과 藥菓).* A corresponding English translation would be “medicine cookie” 💊🍪, although “Korean honey cookie” is more common.
But today, yakgwa‘s image has drastically changed:
With globalization turning previously existing orders upside-down, so too did yakgwa not escape the influence of modern developments. From a contemporary standpoint, this dessert seems to be 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, ice cream and cupcakes. 🍫🍦🧁 Perhaps due to mass-production, honey is no essential ingredient anymore and being generously replaced with cheaper sweeteners. As a result, many store-bought yakgwa are vegan🌱 or contain minimal amounts of natural honey. Another ironic point is that yakgwa are now more prized when they are “embellished” with rice flour🍚 instead of containing 100% of (cheaper) wheat flour.
In fact, even the range of consumers is different these days:
As mentioned, yakgwa is less sugary compared to its contemporary environment. 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 to sweetness and generally prefer more strongly flavored desserts. 🍭 Besides its subtle sweetness, yakgwa bears hints of ginger, pepper or cinnamon (if spices have been added at all), which may be difficult to perceive.
As a consequence, mostly elderly Koreans or people with an ‘old-fashioned’ taste are fans of this mildly-flavored dessert. Other people may even dislike their consistency or fat content, because these deep-fried cookies tend to be quite rich and oily – not to say greasy.
[Frankly speaking, I was initially not very fond of yakgwa, but my interest grows as I learn about its variations and the historical background.]
After all, it seems that yakgwa is easily overlooked next to contemporary sweets, which are literally glowing in all colors of the rainbow, blasting attractive scents and more intense flavors. Another reason may be the phenomenon that new or foreign (exotic) things appear to be more exciting than traditional or familiar ones.
Regarding its production process, yakgwa are made by first mixing flour, oil, honey and spices to make a crumbly paste. The dough is pressed into molds or cut it into pieces, and the shaped pieces of dough are then fried in oil. Next, the deep-fried ‘cookies’ are soaked in syrup until they have evenly absorbed the sweet liquid. Since no baking is involved, yakgwa is a type of Korean confectionery, rather than a bakery product. [This is where English names such as “honey cookie” or “medicine cookie” are misleading translations for yakgwa.]
There exist two major types of yakgwa in present Korea:
Firstly, there is a kind of yakgwa that is flat and round; often, its edges are rippled and it has the shape of a flower as well. 🌼 It is referred to as simply yakgwa or gungjung-yakgwa (궁중약과; “palace yakgwa“). To underline that glutinous rice (chapssal 찹쌀) has been added to the base of wheat flour, it can be called chapssal-yakgwa (찹쌀약과). 🍚 This flower-shaped yakgwa has a soft and slightly chewy consistency. [In case you know what Marzipan is, I’ve once heard German friends compare the texture of this kind of Yakwa to that famous almond confection. 🇩🇪 But greasier. And less sweet. And a bit denser. And drier. No idea whether this description helps at all... 😬]
Another type is Kaeseong yakgwa (개성약과) or alternatively mo-yakgwa (모약과), which is square or rectangular. 🔲 This Kaeseong-style** yakgwa has a rather brittle texture, which tends to break into several layers similar to mille-feuille or pastry dough. 🥐 For some people, this kind of yakgwa may actually be reminiscent of certain baklava from Middle Eastern cuisines (e.g. Arab, Turkish, Persian) – but less sweet and less sticky.
Where to find yakgwa and how to eat it
In regard to traditional customs, however, yakgwa still bears significance during holidays or (e.g. wedding, ancestral) ceremonies.
Apart from such special occasions, one can encounter it in daily life as well. However, this historical confectionery 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).
Disregarding that yakgwa were once a luxurious treat, they are nowadays easily available and as affordable as regular snacks and sweets. You will notice that yakgwa not only come in various shapes but also different sizes, and prices vary accordingly. If you buy one large piece for take-away, it can cost between 1000-1500 KRW, smaller yakgwa should be cheaper. Prices for yakgwa at a tea house will be significantly higher, but you might gain something else in exchange. For instance, there will be a menu of Korean teas and other refreshments to enjoy along with dessert. Food and drinks could be served in interesting tableware, allowing you to wonder about more aspects of Korean culture. Also, you could be sitting inside a traditional wooden building, a room decorated with nostalgic items and artifacts, or listening to elegant music – either of which create an extraordinary atmosphere. Perhaps a setting ideal for mind-travelling into the past…
Notes by the author:
*) The Sino-Korean character 藥 (yak 약) widely translates to “medicine” and in this context, the character 菓 (gwa 과) refers to gwaja (과자 菓子). In contemporary Korea, the word gwaja is used to denote crackers, cookies or confectionery which are consumed as snacks or for dessert.
**) Kaeseong (개성) is a city which used to be the capital of historic Korea between 919-1394 and is located in today’s North Korea.
- alternative names / spellings: yak-gwa | yak gwa | yakkwa | 藥果 | Gaeseong yakgwa | gwajul | gwa-jul | gwa jul| 과줄 | kkul-yakgwa | 꿀약과 | moyakgwa
- compare with: traditional Korean dessert | hangwa| han-gwa | 한과 | gangjeong | gang-jeong| 강정 | yugwa | yu-gwa | 유과 | yumilgwa | yumil-gwa | 유밀과 | 油蜜果 | 油蜜菓 | dasik | da-sik | 다식 | 茶食 |