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 아라리오브네 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 most 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. 🙂

In conclusion, Korean cuisine exhibits a wide arrange of natural food colorants. 🌶🎃🌿🍵🍠🍓 But beside color, they also endow the food with their specific aroma, which may be appealing to some but repulsive to others.

In the given cases of green tea and mugwort, for example, many children dislike them for their bitter taste. Mugwort’s strong herbal scent may also be associated with [bad childhood memories of] “healthy foods” that were forced down for the sake of well-being. 🤒💊 (Comparable perhaps to Westerners drinking herbal teas from chamomile or fennel.) Other people, however, enjoy the distinct aroma and choose it over plain options.

Gelato with green tea flavor (left) and mugwort flavor topped with roasted soy powder (right) at Scooper Gelato (스쿠퍼젤라또) in Seoul, August 2019.

Either way, I urge you to be brave and at least give it a try. It is best decide for yourself, whether you may grow to like it or whether you prefer the pure, mild taste of white rice and vanilla ice cream. 🍚🍦

There is so much to discover in Korea’s colorful and flavorful (and healthy) cuisine! ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜🖤 [More on other edible colors in a future post!]

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Additional 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.

As sweet as honey

Honey or no honey?

This question does not only concern vegans in Korea.
But for vegans, this subject is particularly confusing.

The question of what is honey and what is not, is material for a multi-layered discourse.

To begin with, the Korean term kkul 꿀 basically means honey. 🍯 But not everything that is called ‘kkul‘ actually contains honey. Such is the case for many fruits which are sold as ‘honey apple’ 🍏 (kkul sagwa 꿀사과) or ‘honey strawberries’ 🍓 (kkul ttalgi 꿀딸기). There exist even ‘honey chestnuts’ 🌰 (kkul bam 꿀밤) or ‘honey sweet potatoes’
🍠 (kkul goguma 꿀고구마), which are sweeter than normal! The word is simply added by producers or vendors to emphasize their superior, honey-like taste. In other words, kkul” functions like a quality label.

Korean honey melon (chamoe 참외) with stickers designating them to be as sweet as “honey” (kkul 꿀).

Next is the phenomenon that some Korean food items are equipped with the word ‘honey’ simple because they resemble it. Common examples are filled 🥞pancakes (hotteok 호떡) as well as 🍡rice cakes with syrup filling (kkul tteok 꿀떡). In making these, the combination of (brown) sugar, cinnamon / sesame and heat results in a liquid which is golden in color and sweet – reminiscent of honey. Historically, honey has been a precious ingredient in Korea and accordingly, its name is used to add value to foods, even though they may not actually contain it. This applies also to dishes such as Korean confectionery gangjeong (강정) and yugwa (유과) as well as toppings or dipping sauces, which use traditional rice syrup (jocheong 조청), oligosaccharide syrup (oligodang 올리고당), glucose-fructose syrup (aeksang-gwa dang 액상과당) or corn syrup (mulyeot 물엿) as the sweetening ingredient. Sometimes people (proudly) proclaim that their products contain ‘honey’, but after multiple inquiries or checking the ingredient list, it turns out that merely honey-like substances such as those above have been used in the manufacturing process.** Once again, ‘honey’ is a tag suggesting food quality in Korea.

Apart from this, Korean honey – especially honey from cheaper brands – is accused of not being derived from flowers. This issue is widely known and has been criticized for years, yet it is a common practice among industrial honey producers. Basically, industrially raised honey bees are (partially) fed with a substitute (a kind of sugar syrup) instead of flying about in search of flowers. Accordingly, the honey these bees produce does not originate from the nectar gathered from plants. 🐝🚫🌻 Honey which has been produced in a natural but more strenuous process, is necessarily more expensive. 💲 How do you know what kind of honey is used? Check the ingredient list on the food label! The Korean word for this industrially produced honey is 사양(벌)꿀 (sayang (beol)kkul), while the naturally produced honey is commonly referred to as 천연(벌)꿀 (cheonyeon beolkkul).

Yet, it is difficult to judge the quality of honey based solely on its label or price, as scandals and chemical analyses suggest. Since production methods and the quality of common Korean honey are strongly debatable, even some non-vegans abstain from mass-manufactured honey. *

In processed foods, items are particularly prized when ‘real honey’ is one of their ingredients. Due to the high cost of pure honey, however, oftentimes the final product contains only a small portion of honey. Other sweeteners and aroma are largely in charge of imitating the taste of honey. In particular, confectionery such as dagwa (다과) and yakgwa (약과) as well as sweet Korean teas (e.g. jujube tea 대추차, yuja tea 유자차, ginseng tea 인삼차) are traditionally prepared with honey because of its ascribed health benefits. But nowadays you may find that they contain honey only in low quantities or none at all. In short, regardless of advertising strategies, honey is generally not used in large amounts because it is expensive.

Eventually, the word ‘honeyed’ seems appropriate in describing foods which exhibit characteristics similar to honey. It is often ambiguous, whether it refers to real honey or an alternative. The origin being either animal-labor or processed plant materials is vague for the most part. So how can you tell whether something contains honey? In case checking the label is not an option, asking the cook, staff or vendor directly may be. If this is too difficult because of language barriers, or the resulting answer does not seem trustworthy, avoiding things labeled as ‘honeyed’ entirely appears to be the safest way.

Additional notes:

*) Concerned consumers purchase honey only from trusted (private) sources. Instances of scandals, reports of angry customers etc. are numerous online. Keyword search for “fake honey” (gajja kkul 가짜 꿀) in Korean.

**) Rather than language difficulty, I’m starting to believe that this is due to general lack of knowledge. Similarly, I occasionally encounter people who claim that their products do not contain any sugar. Upon asking why they taste sweet, the response is that they use honey or some kind of syrup. No sugar? Right…

Nourish body and soul: Bindaeddeok 빈대떡

The weather is rainy. 🌧
It is simply cold outside.🍃
Or maybe you have a hangover from drinking too much…💥

Whatever be the case – if you have a craving for something warm, greasy, nourishing and hearty, then how about bindaeddeok (빈대떡)? 😉

Stacks of bindaeddeok at Gwangjang Market (광장시장)

This traditional Korean food is a pancake almost entirely made from mung beans, of which the most basic variant is originallyvegan! Basically, skinned mung beans are ground into a smooth batter, which is then fried in oil to create thick, savory pancakes. The batter normally does not need additional flour or eggs for stabilizing, so this dish is not only vegan but also gluten free. Nevertheless, the final pancakes are very filling, contain a mass of protein and are quite the indulgence! 🤤

In general, one can distinguish between two varieties: Plain pancakes vs. pancakes with chunky “fillings”. In the first version, the plain batter is used to make smooth, golden-colored pancakes. The latter contains chunks of additional ingredients, such as pieces of vegetables (e.g. bean sprouts, scallops, carrots) but occasionally also 🐟kimchi, 🦐seafood or 🥩meat. Since seafood and meat fillings normally cost extra, it is rather easy to confirm that your serving is ordered the way you prefer it! Needless to say, the flavor of the final dish changes along with the additional ingredients, and so does the texture shift from smooth and slightly grainy towards chunky and moist!

Similar to other Korean savory pancakes, bindaeddeok are served together with a complimentary sauce. When eating bindaeddeok, pieces of the pancake are dipped into the sauce (typically soy sauce with extra spices) and thus seasoned according to one’s personal preference.

Plain bindaeddeok at North Korean restaurant “Neungra Babsang” (능라밥상)

Besides the taste, there exist slight variations also in terms of name and appearance. For instance, an alternative name for bindaeddeok is nokdu jeon (녹두전 绿豆煎 – literally green bean pancake). In North Korea, on the other hand, these pancakes are called nokdu jijim (녹두지짐).

Also, sizes range from as big as plate-filling to smaller, bite-sized pancakes. The North Korean version, in particular, is prepared with a plain batter, which is occasionally topped with 🌶vegetables or a piece of 🐷pork for garnish.

After all, I warmly recommend clarifying prior to ordering what kind of topping or ‘filling’ will be used! You can easily eliminate meat, fish and seafood by asking something like this: “Hoksi gogi, saengseon ina haemul neo-eu-seoyo? 혹시 고기, 생선이나 해물 넣으세요? Are you putting meat, fish or seafood in this?” If the answer is no (“aniyo! 아니요!”), there should be no shocking surprise when food is served. 😉 However, in case you are allergic or follow strict rules, be aware that your food may nevertheless be cooked on the same grill as food that is not vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher.

Where to find:
There are restaurants which specialize in such pancakes – these are normally identical with pubs serving traditional Korean alcohol (hanguk suljip 한국술집). 🍶🥞 In fact, bindaeddeok is commonly enjoyed in combination with alcohol, especially Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) and pancakes make a classic couple in Korean food culture.

Besides that, bindaeddeok are also sold outdoors at food stalls (preferably near subway stations or busy streets) or on traditional markets. At such locations, you can either eat one on the spot like typical Korean street food, or you can buy it for take-away. 🥡 In my opinion, however, they taste best, when they are still hot and crispy outside, while the inside is soft and juicy! 🤤

Overall, these pancakes are a rich and indulgent food item that is (at least in Korean minds) emotionally linked with social gatherings. In addition to that, they provide fuel to help you regain your strength, when you feel weak physically. Hence, I list bindaeddeok as one of my personal comfort foods in Korean cuisine. 💚🍴

What is your favorite comfort food? ☕️🌧 Anything other than chocolate?! 🍫
Or do you have a specific craving, when you have a hangover? 🤪

Seasonal treat: Spring greens


🐦Birds are singing.🕊
🌸Flowers are blooming.🌼
🦋Insects are buzzing around.🐝
🌱New leaves are sprouting on plants.🌿

It’s basically screaming in your face:
🌤 SPRING IS HERE!!!! 🌷

How else can you tell?
🤤Fresh spring greens (bom namul 봄나물) are back!!💚

Dishes made from tofu and spring greens (pictured: dol namul, dureup, bangpung namul, dallae)

Traditional Korean food is characterized by turning seasonal and local ingredients into diverse healthy and flavorful dishes. In particular, the abundance of side dishes consisting mainly of 🥦vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🌿wild herbs is a wonderful aspect for vegans, vegetarians and vegetable-lovers! 🤤💚🥕 And now, as spring greens are in season, these are used to upgrade dishes with the special flavor of spring.🌱 Accordingly, you will notice how additional fresh greens are currently offered in grocery stores, on traditional markets, and in restaurants.

There exists quite a diversity of edible greens native to the Korean peninsula. Among the common ones, you will find:

  • ssuk (쑥) – the young leaves of Korean mugwort (Artemisia princeps) are harvested before the plant develops tough and stringy leaves. Its aroma is so popular that it is frequently added to rice cakes, bakery and beverages (e.g. tea or ssuk latte 쑥라떼) all year round
  • chwi namul (취나물) – various species from the family Asteraceae, e.g. 참취 (Aster scaber), 곰취 (Ligularia fischeri), 미역취 (Solidago japonica)
  • cham namul (참나물) – Pimpinella brachycarpa
    bangpung namul (방풍나물) – edible leaves of a plant which belongs to the same botanical family as carrot, parsnip and parsley
  • sebal namul (세발나물) – the fine thread-like leaves of this plant are edible raw as well as briefly blanched.
  • dol namul (돌나물 石上菜) – Sedum samentosum
  • dureup (두릅) – newly sprouted leaves of the tree Aralia elata, which are edible after cooking and thus softening the shoot’s stings.
  • dallae (달래) – Allium monanthum is a kind of small spring onion
  • sseumbagwi (씀바귀) – roots from a plant scientifically called Ixeridium dentatum. As the name implies, these roots are quite bitter and are reminiscent of dandelion.

Prices for these greens vary by type, but they are generally quite affordable – often decisively cheaper than common vegetables from Western cuisines such as spinach, lettuce or cabbage! Normally you can buy a package (supermarket) or a ‘shovel full of greens’ (traditional market) for something between 1000 KRW and 3000 KRW.

Side dishes made from sebal namul, sseumbagwi and dol namul

If you wonder how these are eaten, recipes for spring greens are innumerable! In general, most of them can be turned into simple vegetable side dishes by blanching them in lightly salted water and then seasoning them according to personal liking. In addition to that, some can be eaten raw in combination with a flavorful dressing – sebal namul and dol namul for instance. Other ideas are to add them to stews, make savory pancakes or use them as a topping in a bowl of mixed rice (Bibimbab 비빔밥).

During the rest of the year, you may encounter some of these greens in dried form as well. However, the texture, flavor and aroma differ decisively from the taste of the fresh plant. So don’t miss out on this opportunity and enjoy this spring treat as long as fresh greens are available over the next few weeks!

Happy experimenting and exploring the various flavors of these local vegetables! 😊

Jelly in secret: Hidden gelatin

Fact #1:
Gelatin is a gelling agent.

Fact #2:
Gelatin is made from 🐖pork. Or some other kind of animal remains.

Vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians, Muslims, Jews and many more know about fact #2.

But how come many still do not know where gelatin is from?

And how is it that the use of gelatin is so widespread in the food industry?

It has become so common, that it is added to foods you wouldn’t expect to find it in.

Assuming that jello and regular jelly treats are familiar foods made with gelatin, I keep thinking it is not worth mentioning it. But who knows? Personally, I had never thought about gelatin being added to something like marshmallows – until a friend mentioned it and I eventually checked the label. 😰

Ever since, reading labels has been very… interesting… 🤔

In order to share some more facts with you, let me tell you that many yogurts in the US
🇺🇸 contain gelatin as well. This seems very bizarre to me, because in Germany🇩🇪 and other European countries, there is no need for yogurt to have gelatin added to them. It is generally quite easy to find plain yogurt that is 100% milk fermented with various lacto-bacteria. Even when it’s not labeled specifically Greek yogurt, it is creamy enough for you to spoon it up. 🥄

In South Korea🇰🇷, however, the situation is different again. Not only is it difficult to find plain yogurt which has not been sweetened. (Btw, I’m not talking about ‘drinking yogurt’ such as Yakult here.) But similar to my experience in the US, most store-bought yogurts contain gelatin.

🤯
Mind-blowing.
Why? 😱
Why does it need gelatin??? 😵
Big question mark.

So far, I could identify only two brands which neither contain gelatin nor additional sweeteners: Sangha Mokjang‘s Organic Plain Yogurt and Namyang‘s Milk100 Yogurt.

Unfortunately, not every supermarket or convenience store carries these yogurts. On top of that, yogurts are somewhat expensive💲 in Korea – just like many dairy products in general. Because of that, I tend to make yogurt myself.*

Beside yogurt, there are other foods which contain gelatin. I understand that certain dishes, desserts in particular, require a gelling agent for texture. Although there are various gelling agents – also of plant origin -, each gelling agent exhibits certain characteristics and in certain cases, gelatin happens to be the preferred choice.

Regarding my experience in Korea and for reasons unknown to me, the following foods occasionally contain gelatin:

  • yogurt 요구르트
  • pudding 푸딩
  • mousse cakes 무스케이크
  • regular fruit jello? 브띠첼? (need to confirm this one still)

As there may be exceptions, you can always check the label or ask someone. In a café or at a bakery, you could do so for example by asking like this:

Hoksi jelatin deureogadnayo? “혹시 젤라틴 들어갔나요?” Does this contain gelatin, by any chance?

In conclusion, things are not always what they seem. Gelatin and other animal derived ingredients may be invisible and familiar foods tend to be different in other cultures. Thus, I highly recommend learning Korean language in order to avoid misunderstandings. 🗣

*) This just needs a little bit of preparatory time 🕖, planning ahead📝 and keenness to experiment. 🤓 (It will not work if you have a sudden craving for yogurt or are impatient.) Other than that, it’s actually pretty simple and doesn’t require more than fresh milk, a yogurt starter culture and a source of constant warmth, such as a radiator or the traditional Korean floor heating (ondol 온돌).

Vegan jelly with fishy smell: Gonyak 곤약

Vegan sushi (chobab 초밥) made with thin slices of gonyak.

Now, what is this? 😶
You might wonder.

This is a jelly produced from the root of a plant scientifically called Amorphophallus konjac, the Korean name for it is gonyak (곤약).

It smells a bit fishy, the texture is chewy, squeaky, almost rubber-like… maybe close to squid…🦑 But, this is no regular sushi topping! 🍣

It is perhaps more common in Japanese foods, where it is referred to as konnyaku (菎蒻). In Korea, I’ve seen it added to stews or stir-fries, because it can absorb the flavor of the surrounding sauce pretty well. It can also be used as a thickener in desserts or as low-calorie, low-carb replacement for noodles. It’s totally vegan, gluten free and simply fun to eat. 😆 *squeak*

If you are curious to try this ingredient during your cooking adventures, simply look for it in your local supermarket! It is sold in various shapes, ranging from a block of jelly to fine noodles! 🍲

Another fun fact:
In some Asian countries, they produce fruit jellies which are made using gonyak instead of gelatin as a thickener. Simply check the ingredient list on the packaging – if you find the words “곤약” or “gelling agent E425”, it refers to gonyak. 📃 Gelatin on the other hand is labeled as “젤라틴” or “E441”.

Until I learned about gonyak, I was having trouble finding a decent alternative to the common gelatin jelly. I tried numerous jelly variations (using agar-agar, pectin, carageenan, potato starch etc. as gelling agents) but the texture was simply lacking… They were either too soft, too watery or melted too quickly. 😞 Gonyak, though, creates an even more stable jelly-consistency while remaining juicy nevertheless.😋

[Now I wonder what gummiebears made from gonyak would be like! 😏]