Flowers and Food in Korea

May – this month is filled with special events:

Around the world, many countries have designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day to commemorate mothers (including grandmothers, godmothers, or parents in general!). In addition to that, Christian holidays such as Ascension and Pentecost are often celebrated in the month of May. For Muslims, Ramadan and Eid are frequently observed during May as well. And in Korea, even Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated in spring – this year, on 19 May 2021.*

Carnations sold by the roadside. Seoul, May 2021.

To these various holidays, modern South Korea has added
👦👧 Children’s Day on May 5 (어린이날),
👩‍👦👨‍👧‍👧 Parents’ Day on May 8 (어버이날),
🌹🌹 Rose Day on May 14 (로즈데이),
👩‍🏫👨‍🏫 Teacher’s Day on May 15 (스승의 날) and
🤵👰 Day of Married Couples on May 21 (부부의 날).

What happens on these days? Generally, it’s all about expressing appreciation and giving presents. 💕 And except for Children’s Day, all of them involve flowers!** 💐 (Besides roses, favored flowers are actually carnations.)

So, in certain countries, May is also filled with flowers! 🌺🌻
[Also in nature!]

🌸 Most flowers are eye-catching, colorful or beautiful in a way. 👀
🌸 Many flowers have a scent – best if pleasant! 👃
🌸 Some are even edible! 👅

Traditional and modern Korea has incorporated flowers in diverse aspects of its eating culture. 🌸🥢 Let’s explore the combination of flowers and food in Korea, where edible flowers are called “sigyong-kkot” (식용꽃). There are delectable dishes and drinks with flowers, as well as so-called “flower cafes”! If you are planning to take your date out, or spend quality time with good friends, children, parents or teachers, how about visiting the exceptional setting of a flower cafe or enjoying some beautiful, flower-based foods together? 🌷👨‍👩‍👧‍👦🌻👨‍❤️‍👨🌺👫🌼👭🌸

Green tea with flowers of Prunus mume (매화) at temple Bulgwangsa 불광사, Mokpo 2014.

What flowers are consumed in Korea? Which Korean dishes contain edible flowers?

Home-made Hwajeon with lilac flowers. Germany, 2020.

An important dish associated with flowers is hwajeon (화전 花煎), which translates to “flower pancake”. 🌸🥞 To be more precise, it is a pan-fried rice cake that is decorated with flowers – in other words, it’s a type of tteok (떡). 🍡 It is a simple, yet beautiful dessert of traditional Korean cuisine: The main ingredients are glutinous rice flour, water and edible flowers and it is made by carefully frying rice dough in a pan. The dish may be served with syrup (or honey🐝). Thus, hwajeon are normally vegan 🌱 and also gluten-free by default! 🚫🌾 They are, however, usually made at home and it is rare to see them offered for dessert anywhere but at a fancy Korean restaurant.

Overall, the final appearance of hwajeon depends on the type of flower as well as on the chef’s talent. 👨‍🍳👩‍🍳

Basically, all kinds of flowers and other toppings can be used for decoration. Traditionally, the decoration changes along with the season:

Common flower components are Korean rhododendron (jindallae 진달래) in spring 👇, rose petals in summer 🌹, and chrysanthemum in fall 🌼.

In this context, an important edible flower needs to be introduced: Rhododendron mucronulatum, also known as Korean rhododendron, Korean rosebay, or simply Jindallae (진달래). It is a kind of rhododendron that is native to the Korean peninsula, and its purple flowers are an outstanding sight in spring. ⚠️ Different to other species of rhododendron and azalea which may be poisonous ☠️, the flowers of Jindallae are edible and taste slightly sour! Be careful not to confuse Jindallae with Cheoljjuk (철쭉) or Yeongsanhong (영산홍), which are also species of Rhododendron that grow in the wild and look very similar. ⚠️

North-Korean beer flavored with Korean rhododendron (진달래) at ChinChin 친친, Seoul 2021.

Jindallae flowers are a short-lived treat in early April, blossoming before any other azalea. Besides being a characteristic topping on hwajeon, Jindallae is an important ingredient in drinks like the Korean liquor Dugyeonju (두견주 杜鵑酒), a traditional fruit drink called Jindallae hwachae (진달래화채) and even a North Korean beer which is named after the flower.

Although chrysanthemum flowers (gukhwa 국화) may be used for hwajeon, they are most prominently used for tea. Chrysanthemum is a genus of flowers which come in various sizes and colors. While large varieties of chrysanthemum normally appear in context of floral decorations and flower bouquets, the smaller varieties can be enjoyed in food and drink since they are often softer and more delicate. Commonly used for tea are filled, yellow-colored chrysanthemums that are referred to as hwang gukhwa (황국화 黃菊花; lit. “yellow chrysanthemum”). In addition to that, there recently appeared a Soju (소주) flavor featuring fragrant chrysanthemum flowers.

Furthermore, the flowers of the black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), which is sometimes erroneously called “acacia” (아카시아) are also consumed in Korea. Besides being a major source for Korea’s native honey, the sweet-smelling blossoms can be turned into flower tea or eaten directly: Locust flowers can be consumed raw [they taste a little bit like snow peas!] or deep-fried as akasia-kkot twigim (아카시아꽃 튀김).

Apart from that, there are various edible flowers from cultivated plants available nowadays. Popular examples are pansy (paenji 팬지), violets (biola 비올라 / jebikkot 제비꽃), China pink (paeraengi 패랭이) and primrose (프리뮬라), which are sold in some supermarkets and online stores.

Professionals as well as amateur chefs use these cultivated flowers for creating new dishes or garnishing food and drinks. Accordingly, modern hwajeon are now more frequently decorated with these kinds of flowers than with wild Jindallae blossoms. With regards to other flower dishes, there are no limits, and culinary innovations are appearing every day!

Drinks featuring flowers

Korean flower teas 꽃차

The most prominent way of consuming flowers in Korea is found in the country’s tea culture. 🌸🍵 In case you didn’t know, Korean tea culture contains several different categories and “flower tea” (kkot-cha 꽃차) is a major one!

There is a large range of flowers which are prepared into tea by steeping them in (hot) water. The taste, fragrance and color of those teas is as diverse as the flowers themselves!

Here is a list of prevalent Korean flower teas, which will be expanded gradually:

  • balloon flower tea 도라지꽃차
    • purple blossoms of balloon flower / Chinese bellflower (Platycodon grandiflorus)
    • the roots of the plant are used as a vegetable in Korea: Doraji (도라지)
    • 🔵 tea color: blue
  • calliopsis, tickseed 금계국 金鷄菊
    • orange flowers of Coreopsis
    • 🟠 tea color: strong orange
    • tea flavor: warm and sweet fragrance, reminiscent of sun flowers
  • chrysanthemum tea 국화차
    • various colored flowers of chrysanthemums (species of Chrysanthemum)
    • yellow chrysanthemum 금국화 金菊花
    • large pink or white flowers of a wild chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum zawadskii var. latilobum) 구절초 九節草
    • 🟡 tea color: diverse, often yellow
    • tea flavor: reminiscent of chamomile tea
  • cockscomb flower tea 맨드라미꽃차
    • pieces of red-colored cockscomb flowers (Celosia cristata)
    • tea color: bright pink
  • locust flower tea 아카시아 꽃차
    • white flowers of black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia)
    • ⚪️ tea color: very lightly colored, slightly yellow-green
    • tea flavor: subtle, vaguely reminiscent of snow peas
  • lotus flower tea 연꽃차
    • white flowers of Indian lotus (연 蓮; Nelumbo nucifera)
    • ⚪️ tea color: very lightly colored, slightly green
    • tea flavor: subtle, earthy, reminiscent of lotus leaf tea (연잎차)
  • maehwa tea 매화꽃차
    • white or red flowers of ume tree (Prunus mume)
    • the fruits of the tree are maesil 매실, also known as Chinese plum (mei 梅) or Japanese apricot (ume)
    • tea flavor: fragrance reminiscent of bitter almonds
  • magnolia flower tea 목련차
    • for tea, mostly white flowers of magnolias (Magnolia kobus?) are used
    • 🟡 tea color: bright yellow
    • tea flavor: balmy
  • marigold tea 메리골드차
    • whole flowers or individual flower petals of Mexican marigold aka African marigold (Tagetes)
    • 🟠 tea color: orange
  • pansy tea 팬지차
    • whole flowers of pansys and violets (Viola × wittrockiana)
    • 🔵🟢 tea color: blueish or green
  • peach blossom tea 복숭아꽃차
    • light pink-colored flowers of peach trees (Prunus persica)
  • peony flower tea 작약꽃차
    • pink flowers of Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora)
    • 🟡 tea color: yellowish green, may be milky because of pollen
    • tea flavor: subtle
  • pot marigold 금잔화차
    • whole flowers of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
  • rose tea 장미꽃차
    • flower buds of red roses (Rosa)
    • 🟤 tea color: light brown
    • tea flavor: slightly balmy
  • safflower tea 홍화차
    • entire blossoms or flower petals of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) (홍화 紅花 / 잇꽃)
    • 🟠 tea color: yellow to orange
    • tea flavor: slightly reminiscent of artichoke
  • spice bush flower tea 생강나무 꽃차
    • flowers of blunt-lobed spice bush (Lindera obtusiloba)
    • 🟡 tea color: yellow
  • White lotus blossom
  • White flowers of magnolia in rain
  • Pink-blossom of Chinese peony
  • Purple and white blossoms of Chinese bellflower
  • Light pink peach flowers
  • White Maehwa flowers
  • Pink, white and yellow chrysanthemums in fall.

Modern flower-based drinks

Besides traditional flower teas, modern Korean coffee shops, which are constantly coming up with new menus, may also offer drinks made from flowers. 🌸🍸 There are lemonades and other refreshing beverages, such as [iced] chamomile tea (캐모마일차), roselle flower tea aka hibiscus tea (히비스커스차) or drinks colored impressively blue with butterfly pea flower (the newest imported trend). Even coffee drinks can be aromatized with flowers, e.g. as lavender latte, rose latte or flower americano.

.

What are flower cafes? Where are flower cafes?

Since coffee shops in Seoul and other cities of South Korea are vying with each other for customers, it comes to no surprise that there are all kinds of strategies to gain attention. The so-called flower cafes, for instance, aim to attract people who are fond of flowers or desire an exceptional setting.

If you search for “flower cafe” or the Korean equivalents “peullawo kape” (플라워 카페) and “kkot kape” (꽃카페) [note the Korean pronunciation!], you can find a series of businesses across the country. [FYI, choosing the location by theme or by menu is a natural thing for cafe hunters.]

Each cafe tries to impress with eye-catching decorations (of food as well as the location) and/or extravagant culinary creations, which all involve flowers in some kind of way. Unsurprisingly, interior and exterior of flower cafes are specifically designed as the setting for memorable photos. 📸 [Always be equipped with a camera / smartphone when cafe-hunting!]

Regarding food, vegetarians 🥚🥛 have a choice of desserts and the regular beverages. 🍰🍪🥐 For vegans 🌱, there may not be a plant-based snack, but there is always some kind of vegan-friendly refreshment: Like most coffee shops in Korea, a standard menu includes juices, lemonades and tea. 🧃🥤🍹 Black coffee, aka Americano, must be available, too. ☕️ Just be aware, that prices may be a little higher than at other coffee shops (around 5000~8000 KRW). Overall, their price level is similar to Korean Starbucks, but looks and tastes are obviously a “different” level. ⚠️Also note, that not all flowers there are edible or taste pleasant, but may serve solely decorating purposes…

Additionally, sometimes a flower cafe is a combination of coffee shop and flower shop, so you have the chance to purchase plants, fresh flowers, preserved flowers, or flower-themed merchandise.

Fresh chrysanthemum flowers sold at a traditional market in Seoul 2019.

After all, flowers can be more than beautiful or fragrant – some are consumed in food and drinks because of their looks or flavor!

Edible flowers remain a colorful aspect of food culture and this article touches only lightly on the topic of eating flowers in Korea. 🇰🇷🌸🥢

There are countless other edible flowers around the world! 🌷🌻🌺 And endlessly many ways of enjoying them…

Did you ever eat flowers?

Which kinds of flowers did you try?

And how did you eat them? 🤗

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****

Notes by the author:

*) In 2020, Mother’s Day was on May 10, and Buddha’s Birthday was celebrated on 30 May [postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic].

In 2021, Mother’s Day was on May 9.

**) Never heard of Rose Day? By now, you may know Valentine’s Day, White Day and Black Day. Rose Day is yet another (contemporary) South Korean custom from the dating scene: It’s an occasion to exchange roses! 🌹

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