Names of common allergens in Korean

Here is a compilation of sources of food allergens, which provides their Korean names as well as their most common spelling on Korean food labels. It is sorted by type of allergen and its origin in food – rather than being in alphabetical order. In addition to that, it distinguishes between animal-based and 🌱plant-based foods, so that vegetarians and 🌱vegans can use this page for reference more easily.

Please note, that there exists NO globally accepted, standardized group of food allergens. For each country, there are varying foods which are considered to contain “critical” substances. In the US🇺🇸, for example, only 8 foods are officially declared as allergens, while Canada🇨🇦 lists 10 foods. As opposed to that, the EU🇪🇺 acknowledges 14 foods to cause allergies or food intolerance and requires those to be specifically marked on food labels. [see EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC), page L 304/43.]

Regarding South Korea🇰🇷, a new legislation requires substances which may incite allergic reactions to be mentioned separately on the packaging of foods. Correspondingly, Korean food producers are required to declare at least the following substances:

  • pork 돼지고기
  • beef 쇠고기
  • chicken 닭고기
  • mackerel 고등어
  • squid 오징어
  • clams 조개류
  • crab 게
  • shrimp 새우
  • eggs 난류
  • milk 우유
  • peanuts 땅콩
  • soy 대두
  • wheat 밀
  • buck wheat 메밀
  • walnuts 호두
  • tomato 토마토
  • peach 복숭아
  • sulfites 아황산류 (if SO₂ content in the final product is higher than 10mg/kg)

On the lists below, those substances, which are officially declared on Korean food labels are highlighted in bold letters. You can find tips on how to easily understand such food labels (even though they are written in Korean) in a previous post.

Old food label without clear declaration of allergens. Note the warning in white letters: “People sensitive to allergies are advised not to consume this product.”
New food label mentioning allergens from milk, soy, shellfish (oyster) and pork.

Aiming to share more comprehensive information, this page features foods that may not be standard allergens in Korea but in various other countries. Hence, there are foods which are not explicitly declared in the allergen section of Korean food labels. For people with a high sensitivity to allergens: Potential allergens, which are not distinctly marked, I have added an exclamation mark in front of the respective food source. After all, consulting the entire list of ingredients (and possessing adequate language skills) may remain the safest way to confirm the contents of a given food item.

🐷 Meat and flesh-derived products 🍗🥩

  • 🐖 돼지고기 doeji gogi – pork (pig)
  • 🐄 쇠고기 / 소고기 so gogi – beef (cow)
  • 🐑 양고기 yang gogi – mutton (sheep)
  • 🐕 개고기 gae gogi – dog meat
  • 🐓 닭고기 tak gogi – chicken (poultry)
  • 🦆 오리고기 ori gogi – duck meat (waterfowl)

🐟 Fish from fresh water and sea water🐠🐡

🌱Attention for vegans and vegetarians: Not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging!!!

  • 🐟 생선 saengseon – fish
  • 🐟 고등어 godeung-eo – mackerel
  • ! 멸치 myeolchi – anchovy (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 참치 chamchi / 다랑어 darang-eo / 가다랑어 gadarang-eo etc. – tuna (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 꽁치 gongchi – mackerel pike (not explicitly marked)
  • 정어 jeongeo – sardine
  • … The amount of edible fish in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐚 Seafood – shellfish and cuttlefish 🦀🐙

  • 🐚 조개류 jogaeryu – mussels, clams (mollusks) ➡️ the respective specie may be additionally listed in brackets
  • !🐚 소라 sora / 고둥 godung – sea snail (mollusks) (not explicitly marked)
  • 🦐 새우 sae-u – shrimp (crustacean)
  • 🦞 랍스터 rabseuteo – lobster (crustacean)
  • 🦀 게 ge – crab (crustacean)
  • 🦑 오징어 ojingeo – squid, sepia (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 문어 muneo – octopus (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 낙지 nakji – small octopus (cuttlefish)
  • … The amount of edible seafood in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐝 Insect-related products 🐛🦋

  • ! 🍯 꿀 kkul / 벌꿀 beol-kkul – honey (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 사양꿀 sayang-kkul – industrially produced honey (bees fed with sugar water) / 천연꿀 cheonyeon-kkul – naturally produced honey (bees fed on flowers)
  • 🐛 번데기 beondegi – silk worm pupa

🐔 Eggs and albumen 🥚🍳

  • 🥚 난류 nanryu – eggs (from various birds)
  • 🥚 계란 gyeran / 달걀 dalgyal – chicken egg
  • 🥚 메추리알 mechuri-al – quail eggs

🐮 Dairy, milk protein and milk sugar (lactose) 🥛🧀

  • 🥛 우유 uyu – milk

🌱 Legumes, peanuts and soy 🥜

  • 대두 daedu – soy
  • 🥜 땅콩 ddangkong – peanut
  • kong – beans
  • 완두콩 wandu kong – green pea
  • 병아리콩 byeongari kong – chick peas

🌱 Tree nuts and seeds 🌰

  • 🌰 견과류 gyeon-gwaryu – nuts
  • 헤이즐넛 heijeulneot – hazelnut
  • ! 아몬드 amondeu – almond (not explicitly marked)
  • 호두 hodu – walnut
  • 피칸 pikan – pecan nut
  • jat – pine nut
  • ! 캐슈넛 / 캐슈너트 kaeshju neot / kaeshju neoteu – cashew nut (not explicitly marked)
  • 브라질너트 brajil neoteu – Brazil nut
  • 피스타치오 piseutachi-o – pistachio
  • ! 마카다미아 makadami-a – macadamia nuts (not explicitly marked)
  • 🌰 밤 bam – chestnut
  • ! 참깨 chamkkae / 흑임자 heuk imja – sesame / black sesame (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 겨자 gyeoja – mustard (not explicitly marked)

🌱 Gluten-containing cereals and other grains 🥨🍺

  • 🌾 밀 mil / 소맥 somaek – wheat
  • 🌾 호밀 homil – rye
  • 🌾 귀리 gwiri – oat
  • 🌾 보리 bori – barley
  • … Other gluten-containing cereals, namely spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains are not common in Korea.
  • ! 🌽 옥수수 oksusu – corn, maize (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 🍚 쌀 ssal – rice (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 백미 baekmi – white rice / 흑미 heukmi black rice / 현미 hyeonmi – brown rice)
  • 메밀 memil – buckwheat
  • jo – millet
  • 수수 susu – sorghum

🌱 Fruit and vegetables 🍍🍎

  • 🍅 토마토 tomato – tomato
  • 🍑 복숭아 boksung-a – peach
  • 🍑 살구 salgu – apricot
  • 🍑 자두 jadu – plum
  • 🍌 바나나 banana – banana
  • 🍒 체리 cheri – cherry
  • 🍓 딸기 ttalgi – strawberry
  • !🍏 사과 sagwa – apple (not explicitly marked)
  • 🍐 배 bae – pear
  • 🥝 키위 kiwi – kiwi
  • 🍈 멜론 melon – melon
  • 🍍 파인애플 pa-inaepeul – pineapple
  • 🥑 아보카도 abokado – avocado
  • 🍆 가지 gaji – eggplant
  • 🥦 셀러리 seleori – celery
  • 🎃 (단)호박 (dan) hobak – (sweet) pumpkin

🍄 Others 🧪💊

  • 타트라진 tateurajin – tartrazine, E102 (food coloring)
  • 아황산염 ahwang sanyeom / 아황산류 ahwang sanryu / 이산화항 isan hwahang – various types of sulfites (food preservative)

✍️ Work is still in progress! This list will be expanded gradually! ✍️

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback are welcome! 🤗

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Tips on how to understand Korean food labels

Trust me, I know… Learning a language can be hard, it can take a lot of time and effort to master it. And it requires constant training to keep your language skills polished. At first, a foreign language may seem like a barrier.

A typical food label in Korean contains a lot of information, but it can appear confusing.

BUT! Language is also a tool. In terms of dietary restrictions or personal preferences, it is a vital piece of equipment when searching for what you and your body need. So in this regard, it’s a survival skill. Especially in a country like Korea, foreigners do not have access to certain areas of its culture and life without understanding the local language. 🇰🇷 To provide examples regarding food, most restaurants do not possess international menus and food labels are written in Korean. On top of that, few people working in the food sector have a good command of foreign languages, so asking them for detailed information may be difficult. 🚫🇨🇳🇬🇧🇯🇵

But you know what? You don’t have to possess advanced Korean language skills, when hunting for food!

For now, it’s enough if you are able to read Korean. Korean language uses a writing system which is not complicated! First off, it’s an alphabet. This alphabet is referred to as hangeul (한글) and it consists of only 22 letters! That’s less than the Latin alphabet, which is used (in adapted form) in contemporary English, Spanish, German, French, Italian etc.! If you have mastered the Latin alphabet, the Korean alphabet will be as easy as pie! 🍰

When you know Korean letters, you have the skill to read (and write) Korean words. That does not mean that you automatically understand their meaning, but you can read them aloud or write them using a more familiar writing system. For instance, you see the word 고기 and you know it’s read as “gogi“.

Congratulations! You now possess the skills to read Korean menus as well as the ingredients printed on food items!

Next, all you need to know is how to spell the food you want to avoid. If you check one item’s ingredient list and you spot something you do not want to consume, then you can stop deciphering the rest. Saves you time! [Find what you CAN eat by eliminating what you cannot. Basic routine of ‘picky eaters’…]

But there is an immense diversity of words for food! The list of ingredients and the corresponding list of vocabulary may appear endless! Especially today, where we distinguish between things such as dextrose, oligosaccharide and glucose-fructose-syrup, beside honey and [plain white refined] sugar. And then, there is a wider array of food sources in general, resulting in lists specifying e.g. corn starch🌽, potato starch🥔, tapioca starch🍠, water chestnut starch🌰 and modified starch…

Does that mean you need to learn all these words in Korean???
No.
A few basic words will suffice!
If you know that “gogi” means meat🥩 in Korean, then you can avoid anything containing the word “gogi“. This includes 돼지고기🐖, 쇠고기🐄 , 닭고기🐓 and so forth. You know right away, that these letters describe meat.* Simple, right?

Depending on the type of diet you are following, there are different words that will be of interest to you. Basically, knowing that set of Korean vocabulary is enough. Pescetarians🚫🥩 and people eating hindu🚫🐄, halal or kosher 🚫🐖 are probably fine knowing meat-related vocabulary. To this, vegetarians can simply add words regarding fish, seafood and insects.** 🚫🐟🦑🐛 For vegans, the list will include meat, fish, seafood, insects, eggs, dairy and honey. 🚫🥩🐟🦑🐛🥚🥛🍯 Someone with gluten intolerance may consider studying words denoting wheat products and the likes. 🚫🌾

Does it seem to get complicated again?

How to understand food labels written in Korean – the easy way!

Here’s good news: Recently, labels on Korean food items have become more comprehensible. While food (and bio-chemical) companies are constantly creating new food items, “magical” food additives and confusing names for ingredients, food labels are getting longer and longer. Sometimes, the ingredient section of the food label is not even printed in a legible way! However, reading the entire list and understanding each single word written in Korean is not necessary to determine whether something is vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free! On newly designed food packages, there is now an additional notice, which was introduced for people with allergies. Essential information!

Next to the (detailed) list of ingredients, there are a couple of words which are normally highlighted by a different color, written inside a separate text box or otherwise visibly marked. It may look something like this:

Note the characters 함유 (hamyu), which mean “contain” or “include”. And then pay attention to whatever is written in front of it. This is where the key sources of ingredients containing potential allergens are briefly mentioned.

In above example, the food item was produced with ingredients which originate from milk (우유 uyu), peanuts (땅콩 ddangkong), egg (계란 gyeran), wheat (밀 mil), beef (쇠고기 sogogi) and soy (대두 daedu). In other words, it contains allergens from dairy🥛, egg🥚, gluten🌾, legumes🥜 as well as cow meat🐄.

Spotting critical ingredients in food products can be this easy!***

Curious what food item is made from this combination of ingredients? In case you were wondering, here’s the answer:

They LOOK like chocolate-filled cookies shaped like edible little (base)balls. 🍪 They possess the PROMISING name “Home Run Ball” (홈런볼). ⚾️ And they contain quite a number of “interesting” ingredients. 😯 But what’s beef got to do in there? That’s exactly what I was wondering, too… 🤯 By the way, the “함유-listing” is not to be confused with the disclaimer mentioning that the item was produced in a factory processing other foods and therefore may contain traces of those. Beef in the form of beef tallow / suet (우지 uji) is specified among the actual ingredients!

As you can see, there are no real excuses for not learning Korean! At least some.
Come on, sit your bum down already and learn those 22 Korean letters! And then make your very own set of Korean vocabulary. That’s perhaps no more than a dozen words. The rest is practice and application in real life!

Why you need to be able to read Korean on food labels

And there will be tons of opportunities for you to train! In daily life, you will be able to use your skills regularly! Because you technically need to check the label of every food item! Even if you find one thing that is vegan/vegetarian, a different food company may possess a different recipe using animal products.

Just to give you some examples, oftentimes, there is gelatin hidden in yogurt and candy, most bakery products contain dairy, and fish sauce or anchovy powder are common ingredients because they ‘enhance the flavor’. There are even noodles, which consist of powdered egg shells or ground shellfish! [Why??? 🤔] In addition to that, large and international brands adapt their recipes to the local taste, so familiar foods such as oreo cookies taste less sweet and contain components of dairy (whey powder and lactose) in Korea. [Oreos are NOT VEGAN in Korea!!! 😱]

Oreo cookies listing wheat, milk and soy as allergens.

What are the benefits of learning how to read Korean food labels?

If I haven’t made my point clear enough already, let me put it this way:
It’s a vital skill that enables you to identify food. It gives you the freedom to decide what you purchase and what you consume. It’s for more independence and self-determination with regards to your diet and lifestyle.

Best is: You can start out by studying the Korean alphabet by yourself, without signing up for Korean classes. You also do not need to worry about pronunciation, yet. For the beginning, it’s enough if you can quietly read and understand the basics. There is no need to bother memorizing massive amounts of vocabulary. Simply focus on what is important for your survival in Korea’s food jungle.

Eventually, when you go shopping for groceries or search for snacks at a convenience store in Korea, you can check the food labels on your own. Do apply your newly acquired skills in real life! Then you will quickly improve your reading skills and grow accustomed to the necessary vocabulary. Don’t forget that, after all, practice makes perfect.

Additional notes by the author

*) Here’s a wonderful exception to above rule: The word 콩고기 (kong gogi) translates literally to “bean meat” and denotes meat imitations based on soy, seitan (wheat protein aka gluten) or a mixture of both. In other words, it’s a vegan alternative to real meat. Important vocabulary, nevertheless! But not necessarily something you might want to avoid, unless you dislike processed foods overall.

**) Yes, insects! Traditional Korean cuisine is not actually characterized by insects, but there is one common street food item, which is made from the pupa of silk worms: Beondegi (번데기).

***) Unfortunately, not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging. Thus, this technique does not serve as the universal tool to rule out non-vegan or non-vegetarian foods. As a rule of thumb, however, fish products🐟 are normally not added to sweet food items.

Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… 🤓

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (찰토마토), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (카페 엘딘) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (토마토주스) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everything… In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (천은사) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” 🤓 Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. 💚🍅❤️

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in Shall We Dance (1937).

Language of food

For learners of 🇰🇷Korean language🇰🇵, Korean foodies interested in improving their
🇬🇧English skills🇺🇸 or anyone fascinated by 🥢food culture🍴, I’ve decided to add another page to this website: Korean Language of Food.

Language as well as food, both are expressions of a country’s culture. Hence, by getting to know this aspect of Korean culture, it helps in understanding and experiencing it more deeply.

There will be common phrases used in context with food, ideas for communicating your food preferences and corresponding vocabulary. 

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback will be welcomed! 🤗

Meeting Potatoes in Korea

You may find boiled potatoes boring as a side dish🥔, but you love french fries🍟. And a bag of chips miraculously disappears when you watch a movie. 📺

Thinking you know potatoes? 🥔

You’ve probably had potatoes in all kinds of ways:
Boiled, mashed, baked, roasted, fried, cooked ‘au gratin’…

You also know there are various kinds of potatoes: Potatoes with white or yellow flesh, covered with brown or pink skin. There exist even blue potatoes! Sweet potatoes, yams and regular potatoes are not the same thing either.*) 🥔=/=🍠

Congratulations, you know a lot about potatoes. 👍

But have you ever had potatoes the KOREAN WAY? 🇰🇷

You shall experience potatoes from a totally different perspective in Korea.

Firstly, potatoes are not considered a staple food as in Western cultures. Here, the staple food is rice. Period. 🍚 Potatoes, on the other hand, are rather enjoyed as a snack in between meals. How? On their own. Plain. What? Just potatoes. Steamed. [Did you ever think of steaming potatoes before?] Right, steaming is an option of preparing food, remembering that now. Koreans also boil potatoes in water just like Westerners do. Still something seems odd. Without any seasoning? Well, yes. Sugar. WHAT?

This is how I encountered potatoes in Korea for the first time: Grandmother brought us a tray with steaming hot potatoes, next to it was a bowl of white sugar. We were supposed to peel the potatoes with our hands and then dip them into the sugar. This was in the 1990s. In other families, the potatoes may be entirely coated with sugar before serving. While this seems like an old-fashioned way of preparing potatoes, this snack is still available at some street stalls. Plain potatoes to go. 🥡 Yay!
Alternatively, another popular snack, which is sold as street food are small potatoes, that have been peeled and fried in vegetable oil until partially golden brown. These little spherical potatoes (normally referred to as algamja (알감자) or tong-gamja (통감자)) are served with sugar or salt and eaten with toothpicks or wooden skewers.

Various snacks sold on the street: Fried potatoes served with brown sugar, cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, boiled eggs, peanuts, bell pepper, Korean melon etc.

Furthermore, potatoes are treated somewhat like vegetables. One vegan side dish (common in restaurants and at home) is made from thin slices of potatoes fried together with julienned carrots and onions in vegetable oil (gamja bokkeum 감자볶음). Another veggie-friendly side dish consists of potatoes, which have been cooked in a soy sauce-based brine (gamja jorim 감자조림). Once, I’ve even seen potatoes served raw in a noble Korean restaurant – very finely sliced and bedded on a sweet-and-sour sauce. So basically, when potatoes are served as a side, you have starch to accompany your bowl of rice, which is served as the staple. 🍚➕🥔 Hooray!

Following this scheme are also developments regarding modern foods in Korea, i.e. foods with recent Western origins. Let’s talk pizza and say “pija” (피자) for Korean pizza. Forget Italian pizza. Think American pizza plus K-pop. In Korea, they put french fries on pizza. 🍕➕🍟 Potatoes are in fact a common topping on Korean pizza – especially when you order the vegetarian option. Order your veggie-friendly gamja pija (감자피자) for double indulgence. And to properly top things off, go to one of the Korean pizza places, where you can add sweet potato cream as a topping around the crust. 🍕➕🍟➕🍠 Don’t feel like pizza? Then there’s also the option to get a veggie-friendly burger at Lotteria (Korean version of McDonalds or Burger King), which is filled with – guess what – a hash brown! Who needs a burger patty alternative, if you have potatoes?! Oh and don’t forget to order french fries as the side! 🍔➕🥔➕🍟

If this is too much greasy decadence for your taste, how about a salad? 🥗 Contemporary Korea also offers potato salad – called gamja saeleodeu (감자샐러드). How to make Korean potato salad: Take a regular potato salad with mayonnaise dressing, mash everything with a fork until it’s an even paste with tiny pieces of vegetables (and occasionally ham), and then shape the mass into pretty balls using an ice cream scoop. To be frank, I have not thoroughly studied recipes on how to make Korean potato salad. But that’s what it looks like. Whatsoever, I have done research on how it is consumed. (In other words, I have more experience eating it!) How to eat Korean potato salad: 1) Enjoy it as a side dish next to your bowl of rice, while eating with chopsticks. 🍚➕🥔➕🥢 2) Place one scoop of potato salad in between two slices of toast and make a sandwich. 🥪➕🥔. Apart from that, you can find it at the salad bar of buffets, ready for you to assemble your own healthy, vitamin-packed, light salad creation. There may be more ways of serving Korean potato salad, but those are the ones that stuck in my mind the most. By the way, you can find this salad also ready-made in super markets and convenience stores, normally next to sweet potato salad and pumpkin salad, which have similar consistency.

After all, if we continue considering potatoes as vegetables, above equations appear to make sense. Right? At least a little bit…?

“Milk Blended with Potato” at Starbucks in 2019.

As recipes are continuously diversifying, let me tell you about the most recent food trend happening at Starbucks. The current summer 2019 menu includes “Milk Blended with Potato”, which is essentially a milkshake topped with flakes of potato chips and drizzles of cheese sauce. After pizza, fries, sandwiches and salads, it was indeed time for dessert! 🥛➕🍦➕🥔 This concoction tastes very sweet in the milky base but salty, greasy and cheesy on top. 🧀Good luck on getting your brains to accept this combination! (I failed and couldn’t finish it. 😖)

Vegan potato tteok (gamja tteok 감자떡) made from potato starch and filled with sweet bean paste.

Apart from these “curious” ways of consuming potatoes,**) there are many other dishes featuring potatoes in Korea. They are used as ingredients in various foods, ranging from stews to soups, noodles, dumplings and dessert – too numerous to list all. Definitely worth mentioning are potato pancakes as well as potato tteok, which are classical Korean dishes. Both are mainly made from potatoes and entirely vegan.🥔🌱

After all, potatoes are very versatile and they are used in multi-fold ways all over the world. In Korea, you can discover new cooking methods of potatoes. It seems like you are meeting a totally new food!
🥔🤝😊
Hello, Mr. Potato! Nice to make your acquaintance!
“감자씨, 안녕하세요? 처음 뵙겠습니다. 만나서 반갑습니다!”

Fresh potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots in a supermarket in Seoul, June 2019. Note the proportions.

Additional notes from the author:

*) In Korea, there is already a strong distinction between potatoes (gamja 감자) and sweet potatoes (goguma 고구마), as demonstrated in their respective names.

**) Termed “curious” from the perspective of the author, who has grown up in Germany, a country famous for its consumption of potatoes. Thus, based on personal background and experiences, the depicted customs regarding potatoes in Korea seem unconventional and novel in the eyes of the author. There is, however, absolutely no intention to judge what the ‘proper way’ of enjoying potatoes is (doubtful whether such a rule existed anyways).

Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.

Triple P: Gamja-jeon 감자전

Korean potato pancakes served with dipping sauce.

Three syllables:

gam 감.
ja 자.
jeon 전.

Three ingredients:

– potatoes
– salt
– vegetable oil.

What does this result in?

Three words:

Pure
Potato
Pancakes.

In other words, gamja-jeon is a type of Korean pancake, which mainly consists of potatoes. The pancake batter does not contain eggs 🚫🥚 nor cereals 🚫🌾, making this dish originally vegan and gluten free. In short, finely ground potatoes are fried on a hot pan or iron plate in plenty of oil, until they turn slightly brown. The final pancakes are either cut into small pieces or served whole, after which they may be individually torn into bite-sized portions using chopsticks. Since the batter itself is hardly seasoned, these pancakes come with a corresponding dip, which is based on soy sauce, and are thus a savory dish.

Gamja-jeon roughly resemble hash browns🇺🇸, German Kartoffelpuffer🇩🇪 or Swiss Rösti🇨🇭, but upon looking closely, the ingredients, way of serving, taste and texture of each are different. Even inside Korea, there will be variations regarding the size, toppings, thickness and texture of this type of potato pancake. 🥞🥔 Only rarely are there other vegetables added to the basic potato batter. Hence, an alternative name for this dish could be “plain potato pancake”.

Where to find:
In Korean culture, gamja-jeon is a dish typically (but not necessarily) consumed in combination with alcohol, thus it belongs to the food category anju (안주). 🍶 Correspondingly, these potato pancakes are mostly found in Korean pubs, which offer traditional liquors such as makgeolli (막걸리 – rice wine) or soju (소주). But it is absolutely not obligatory to drink alcohol to enjoy these! In Korean pubs, the food is expensive and the drinks are cheap, so it’s okay to order only pancakes, which cost between 10.000 and 15.000 KRW per serving. Just be aware of the fact that Korean pancakes are customarily shared and snacked on while drinking in company 👥 – this is also why their price is higher than non-anju dishes in regular restaurants. In either way, make sure to enjoy the pancakes while they are hot (and crispy)! 🤤 They taste slightly different at each location and peoples’ preferences vary. Personally, I like gamja-jeon best, when the outside is crispy and the potato dough is chewy inside! It’s one of my comfort foods – greasy, savory and crispy – something I crave especially after a hangover… 🍻🤪💥🤢

Thick, medium-sized potato pancakes decorated with chili

After all, gamja-jeon combines also these three concepts in one:
🥞 Pancakes
🥂 Drinking
🥔 Plant-power (👉 vegan🌱).

Maybe I should add a few more “p“s to its title…

Fast Food Fashion of South Korea

Balli balli!” (빨리! 빨리!) Move fast, act immediately, there’s no time! Anyone who visits Seoul will quickly notice how many people appear to be in a rush in whatever they do. Some may call this impatient and short-tempered, others may consider this behavior as targeted at optimization of processes. In the end it might be a mixture of both. 🤷‍♂️

In connection with this collective mindset, there is the phenomenon that the entire city of Seoul is changing rapidly: New buildings arise out of nowhere, businesses open and shut down within a few months, and the smartphone you purchased last year is already too old to attract potential pickpockets. The same is true for various expressions of contemporary culture, such as fashion trends, hair styles and nail art. But did you know that there exists also such a thing as food fashion? In South Korea, it certainly does!

Food fashion???

YES! Of course!

Food is more than just something to fuel your body with energy. [D’uh!]

Food is creatively developed to please all your senses. Ideally, the sensory experience includes that its immaculate outer appearance attracts your attention, after which you will be seduced by its mouthwatering scent. When you touch it, you can feel its texture and discover that it consists of multiple layers, from the outer crust towards the interior. In your mouth, then, your tongue further explores the transmuting textures and plays with the pieces of food. Released is its unique taste – seasoned perfectly in balance with the bliss point. The taste is addictive. You want to take another bite. And another bite… And another… [Note to self: Better stop here. By that I mean indulging in eating as well as further remarks!]

Object of desire?
Tofu pasta at ‘Green Pantry’ in Seoul, spring 2019.

In short, food is designed. It is the product of a process, which requires knowledge about the materials, physical skills and creativity. Regardless of it being grandma’s famous apple pie, the hand-pulled noodles from the traditional Chinese restaurant or the industrially manufactured foods, which engage bio-chemical scientists, nutritionists as well as marketing agents. They all aim to create food whose design persuades us to eventually consume it.

We have come so far that food photographers and food stylists are established as fully recognized jobs by now. 💇‍♀️💅📸 In other words, people can be professionally trained in these fields! And in South Korea, the market of the food industry is fairly big. And not to forget, also, the marketing department is a driving force in food fashioning and generating trends.

So in (random?) intervals, new food trends are evolving. Some of these trends are very short-lived, some vanish after a few months, and yet others last for years and may establish themselves as a kind of “style”.

The object of such trends could be an existing food item that has been imported from other cultures. To provide an example, German Schneeballen (shyu-nebalen 슈네발렌) were once in fashion in Korea. Sometime between the years 2013 and 2014, a Korean friend proudly told me about her experience of having eaten this “traditional German dessert”. I had never heard of it before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and finally discovered these “snow ball” like pastries on a Christmas market in Berlin. In Seoul, however, they had practically disappeared by 2015, and I considered myself lucky when I eventually found a cafe which had specialized in Schneeballen in a provincial city in southern Korea!

Koreanized Schneeballen labeled as “funny cookie smashing with hammer” (Manchi gwaja 망치과자), re-discovered inside Myeongdong Station (명동역). Seoul, summer 2019.

More persistent than the Schneeballen trend and also initiated by imported, international foods are such things as coffee, waffles, pork cutlet “Schnitzel” in Japanese style (donkkasseu 돈까스), French croissants and pastries, Chinese-origin Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) etc. All of these did not traditionally belong to Korean cuisine but they have been incorporated into contemporary K-food culture at varying degrees: Often they are not inferior to the original; sometimes they are transformed into a fusion product bearing traits from both cultures (e.g. green tea croissants!); yet other food items are refined and produced in a quality exceeding their foreign precursors (e.g. bienna keopi (비엔나 커피) aka. ainshyupaeneo (아인슈패너) based on Austrian coffee drink “Einspänner“, in fashion since 2018).

In other cases, one single ingredient is the stimulant for a new food trend. A sudden hype is triggered by a certain ingredient, which is then added to various existing food items. A good illustration of this is green tea powder (Jap. matcha), which in the late 2000s, was advertised as being capable of reducing the calorie intake and thus appealed to (mostly female) consumers interested in dieting. Consequently, it appeared in various categories of food, which were accordingly labeled as “well being” (welbing 웰빙). This trend was so successful that today, matcha has ended up as a common flavoring ingredient, mostly in desserts and beverages but also in noodles – similar to cocoa or chocolate-flavored foods in the Western world. Ever since, matcha latte, matcha ice cream and matcha cake are standard items in coffee shops and grocery stores in South Korea.
Other examples for the single-ingredient or one-theme trend are sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박), mugwort (ssuk 쑥), squid ink (coloring breads, pasta and pizzas), Oreo cookies etc. One of the most recent trends, which set off this spring 2019, is based on black sugar (heukdang 흑당): You can see it mostly in bubble tea beverages and bingsu (빙수 – shaved-ice desserts) flavored, upgraded and garnished in the respective theme. Who knows how long this trend will last?

Then, there are new, innovative food items, which originate from one [unknown] creative mind and, as popularity within one region grows, are copied by competitors and distributed further. To illustrate, there used to be such a thing as “Walking Stick Ice Cream” (jipangi ice cream 지팡이아이스크림) – essentially soft serve filled into a wafer shaped like the letter ‘J’. As I recall, it was available around 2014 and 2016. While in areas frequented by international tourists, such as Insadong (인사동) and Myeongdong (명동), there used to be a food stall for jipangi ice cream every 50 meters, it seems to have completely disappeared by now. [Anyone sighting this presumably extinct ‘specie’ or willing to share old photos, please contact the author.]

Angbeoteo (앙버터) at ‘Jean Boulangerie’ (쟝블랑제리) in Seoul, spring 2019.

Another fashionable dessert invention, which I’d like to mention here, is angbeoteo (앙버터): A sandwich containing red bean paste (pat ang-geum 팥앙금) and a thick slice of butter – called “beoteo” (버터) in Korean. Bread and butter – nothing spectacular, you may think. You may also be familiar with the sweet red bean paste filling, which is common in traditional and modern Korean desserts, e.g. rice cakes (tteok 떡), steamed buns (jjim-ppang 찜빵), bean-filled bread rolls (pat-ppang 팥빵). But did you notice the dimensions of the butter that goes into angbeoteo? Rather than a slice of butter, a CHUNK of butter seems to be a more adequate description. And it’s supposed to be eaten as it is! At room temperature. No warming up in the microwave or the oven to melt the butter!!! 🛑 This curious construction has appeared in 2018 and has true fans among Korean ‘bread lovers’ or ‘bread maniacs’, who refer to themselves as “ppang-suni” (빵순이) or “ppang-dori” (빵돌이). [Personally, however, I am not very fond of butter, as you might have noticed…]

With these rapidly changing trends, I oftentimes find myself regretting to not having tried a certain food item, as long as it was available. You never know when a new food item appears or disappears. And similar to other fields of fashion, such as hair styles or jeans trends, there is also the phenomenon of trends recurring after some time. Such is the case for “Mammoth bread” (mammos-ppang 맘모스빵), which – as the name implies – is a big, rustic-looking kind of “bread”. To be more precise, this kind of Korean bread consists of two layers of sheet cake (similar to German Streuselkuchen) which are covered with cream, jam, spreads or other pastes and are then stacked on top of each other to create one MASSIVE sandwich with sweet filling. From what I have heard, mammos-ppang already existed in the 1980s. I am not sure whether it had actually gone extinct in the meantime, but modern bakeries have re-discovered mammos-ppang and breathed new life into it by breeding new variations featuring matcha flavor, chocolate, sweet potato etc. It is indeed a living fossil which enjoys large popularity at the moment.

Next, we can also talk about food trends with regards to seasons – just like in the clothing industry. There are literally seasons for certain food items, which are A) connected to the availability of the main ingredients and B) to the conditions of the natural environment. The first factor is related to the fact that spring greens, edible flowers or fresh strawberries simply do not exist all throughout the year. Once in season, however, suddenly all sorts of foods are flavored with the respective ingredient. Consequently, many coffee shops temporarily offer special desserts and beverages inspired by the short but intense bloom of cherry blossoms. 🌸 Let’s say, you missed out on Korean Starbucks‘ cherry blossom menu this year, then you need to wait until next year. But who knows what concoctions their creative department will cook up in the meantime? Perhaps, you will never get a second chance to try that green tea latte with cherry blossom cream and pink chocolate! While there is some joy in looking forward to new, delectable creations, there is also a sad aspect of such ‘limited editions’ in the food fashion world.
The second factor determining a food season are weather conditions. Many Korean restaurants have an additional summer menu, featuring mostly cold noodle dishes – a welcome refreshment during 40 degrees Celsius plus humidity! ☀️🌡 Who wants to eat noodles in a chilled broth with ice cubes during winter anyways? (Ironically, hot and spicy dishes as well as nourishing stews are available independently from outside temperatures, though.) Seasonal eating is a thing. Just like dressing according to the weather conditions.
Overall, with regards to food seasons, Korean food fashion is comparable to other cultures. Germany, for instance, has likewise developments whenever regional produce such as rhubarb or asparagus are available. Also, [most] ice cream parlors open only during the warmer months. [Totally incomprehensible in the author’s opinion.]

Last, but not least, above mentioned food trends and the impact of food on contemporary Korean culture are also visible in the country’s language. Korean people actually say things like “This [random food item] is in fashion now, isn’t it?!” (요즘은 [앙버터]가 유행이지!) or “That bakery is very popular at the moment!” (저 빵집이 요새 되게 잘 나가는 곳이지!) or “This coffee shop is totally in!” (여기가 핫한 까페야!). In context with the latter statements, you will see people standing in lines outside restaurants and bakeries, which have received attention in the media and turned into a pilgrimage destination for foodies. People are willing to wait for hours just to taste that renowned food item. There are not a few committed foodies, who travel inside the city as well as nationwide just to visit certain locations because of the food. Eventually, their experiences and impressions are published online on various social media channels, in which they proudly show how they have been able to consume a certain item or visit a famous eating location. It is a way of making a [food] fashion statement.

Excerpt of YouTube search, May 2019.

To conclude, this post is a rough sketch of the current phenomenon of food fashion and eating trends in South Korea. The entire topic as well as corresponding customs surrounding food in general exhibit immense dimensions permeating social structures, religion, language, cultural as well as economical developments and more! After all, TV programs, Instagram, YouTube and other media are filled with edible content, which transcends traditional information on recipes or cooking instructions: They feature e.g. eating channels (mukbang / meokbang 먹방), new food reviews, restaurant suggestions and so-called “food porn”, all of which instantly convey a very graphic image of Korea’s obsession with food.

Are you hungry yet? 🍽

Taste of green: Nokcha 녹차 and Ssuk 쑥

Matcha icecream on matcha frappucino next to matcha cake. Photographed in Gyeongju 2018.

                 🥦🥒🍏🥝🥗
💚 Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen! 💚
Isn’t green food fascinating?

Who does not know about green tea powder alias matcha* and its current use as an eye-catching addition to foods? It frequently appears in East Asian products and by now, it is advancing globally into the spheres of innovative as well as health-conscious food production. At first, the vibrant green may appear alarming to some 🤢, but the fascinating color and intricate bitter taste eventually manages to bewitch matcha enthusiasts all over the world. 🍵🧙‍♂️

But who knows the source of ⬇️this beautiful deep-green color? 👽

“Ssuk tarte” by patisserie Arari Ovene in Seoul 2017.

This, may I introduce, is thanks to mugwort (Artemisia princeps), whose Korean name is ssuk (쑥). 🌲🧚‍♀️ Isn’t the color enchanting?

Ssuk is a native herb, which is rather important in Korean culture** – most particularly in its cuisine featuring the characteristic ingredient in savory main dishes, desserts as well as beverages.🌿 In Korea, the plant, which grows like weed in nature, is consumed when its leaves are still young and soft. 🌱 Early spring is the only season it is harvested, so you will see foods featuring (fresh) mugwort on the seasonal menu of many cafes and restaurants during this period! The young seedlings grow quickly into a tall plant with leaves too stringy and hard to be chewed. Nevertheless, you can encounter many food items flavored and colored with mugwort throughout the year: Rice cakes, bakery products, latte etc. Yet, in such cases, mugwort is used in dried form, most likely as a powder made from the young plants, which were harvested in spring, dried and then finely ground.

In cooking, baking and beverages, ssuk contributes its turquoise-green color (when used as powder) and additionally stringy texture (when used fresh) to the respective food item. Typical for ssuk is its distinct herbal scent, for which it is being cherished by Koreans. When ssuk is eaten raw or in large amounts, however, its bitter taste may be perceived most prominently.

Dried mugwort leaves brewed into tea.

Furthermore, ssuk is ascribed positive effects on the health – especially beneficial to women. To provide an example, in Korea, tea from dried mugwort leaves is supposed to strengthen and warm the body from the inside. (But since I am no expert in traditional herbal medicine, I do not feel qualified to explain this phenomenon.) In correspondence with its medicinal properties, mugwort is generally quite significant in Traditional Chinese Medicine – moxibustion is a common application of mugwort, which even people outside the East Asian culture sphere may have heard of already.

Mature mugwort growing on the side of the road in Germany.

In fact, mugwort also exists in Europe. In Germany, the herb is referred to as “Beifuß” and has traditionally been used as a spice – but here, the dried flowers of the adult plant are used! A famous German dish featuring dried mugwort flowers is the roasted goose prepared on Christmas (“Gänsebraten mit Beifuß” or “Weihnachtsgans”). Perhaps, you happen to have grown up in a family that customarily uses this herb? Or are you familiar with this plant for some other reason? After all, it is possible that the two of you have already been acquainted! You just weren’t aware of it. 🙂

Notes by the author:

*) Matcha is the Japanese reading of ‘抹茶’ (ground tea), which is pronounced “mǒchá” in mandarin Chinese. The Korean reading of the same characters is malda (말다), but it is often referred to as malcha (말차) or simply called nokcha (녹차), which means green tea.

**) In terms of culture, let me just briefly mention the “Tale of Danggun” (당군신화), one of Korea’s creation myths, in which the consumption of mugwort as well as garlic play a decisive role on how the narrative evolves.

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.