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 2020, Mother’s Day was on May 10.] In addition to that, Christian holidays such as Ascension and Pentecost are often celebrated in the month of May. For Muslims, Ramadan and Eid were observed during May this year as well. And in Korea, even Buddha’s Birthday was celebrated on 30 May 2020 [postponed due to Covid-19].

To these various holidays, South Korea adds Children’s Day (May 5), Parents’ Day (May 8), Rose Day (May 14) and Teacher’s Day (May 15).

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 carnations.)

So, in certain countries, May is also filled with flowers! 🌺🌻 [Even 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!

Hwajeon with diverse flowers. Instagram.

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

Assortment of flower teas. Seoul Tea Fair 2018.

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:

  • bell flower blossom tea 도라지꽃차
    • flowers of doraji (도라지)
    • (the roots are used as vegetables)
  • chrysanthemum tea 국화차
    • various colors
    • yellow chrysanthemum 금국화 金菊花
  • yellow cosmos 금계국화 金鷄菊花
  • lotus flower tea 연꽃차
    • white flowers of Indian lotus (연 蓮; Nelumbo nucifera)
  • maehwa tea 매화차
    • blossoms of white-flowering Prunus mume, which is also known as Chinese plum (mei 梅) or Japanese apricot (ume)
    • (the fruits of the tree are maesil 매실)
  • magnolia tea 목련차
    • for tea, mostly the white flowers are used
  • peach blossom tea 복숭아꽃차
  • peony flower tea 작약꽃차
  • rose tea 장미꽃차
    • flower buds of rose blossoms
  • safflower tea 홍화차
    • entire blossoms or flower petals of safflower (홍화 紅花)

Modern flower-based drinks

Hibiscus drink. Seoul, 2017.

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 (카모마일차), roselle flower tea aka hibiscus tea (히비스커스차) or drinks colored impressively blue with butterfly pea flower (the newest imported trend).

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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 “peulawo 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:

*) 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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