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? 🍽

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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.