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! 🤗

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.

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).

Bread is not bread

🥖Bread is the staple food of the Western world. It is the most simple meal. Available anywhere and everywhere. Versatile and diverse. Bread can be sweet, savory, whole, sliced, toasted, sandwiched, baked into puddings, mushed into dumplings (#Semmelknödel), the crispy shell of fried chicken or cutlets, the crumbs of Hansel and Gretel’s trail before they get lost in the woods… (I shall stop here.) Yet, bread can be powerful on its own. Good bread does not need any toppings, no butter, jam or other enhancements. It is flavorful, nourishing and a pleasure to eat on its own, while consisting of only a few ingredients:
Flour, water, salt and the right baking method.

Having grown up in 🇩🇪Germany, where breads such as sourdough bread, whole grain bread, rye bread, have a long tradition, I think I can claim that I know what bread is.

But in 🇰🇷Korea, bread (bbang 빵) is not bread. 🥖=/= 🥖

🍞 Bread is no entire meal.
Bread is a snack.
Although they have eaten bready foods, such as pizza or bread, some Koreans insist that they haven’t had any food (bab 밥) during the entire day unless they have eaten rice (bab 밥).* 🤯

Various types of croissants (e.g. green tea croissant and red velvet) at a Korean bakery.

Korean bakery products often
👀look beautiful,
👃smell irresistible and
👅taste addictive.

But I wouldn’t call them “bread”. Maybe 🍰cake fits better. Or 🥐pastry. Because their bakery goods are almost always sweet.🍩 Even the plain toast, pizza breads and garlic bread contain added sugar. 😵

Don’t get me wrong – I am amazed by contemporary Korean baking! Not just is there cake aka “bread” flavored with curious local ingredients such as 🍵green tea (💚matcha), 🍠sweet potato or 🎃sweet pumpkin. Even the average modern bakery offers cakes and pastries which are skillfully crafted and aesthetically pleasing – regular German cakes and pastries appear rough and unrefined by comparison! 🤩 Modern Korean desserts, overall, are colorful, look extravagant and appear mouth-watering to anyone with a sweet tooth. 🤤

Anyways, my point is: “Korean bread” is not bread, it’s more like dessert.

Beside the sweetness, there is another major difference regarding the ingredients of bread: That is, even the plain toast types of bread contain butter, 🥚egg or other 🥛dairy products. So in case you follow a vegan diet, be aware that in most of the cases, bread or other bakery products at a regular bakery or cafe are not vegan. On top of that, I just recently found out that 🐖lard or shortening is oftentimes added to regular bakery (e.g. toast, cookies), as well… 😱

In bakeries, cafes, convenience stores or food stalls, finding a 🥪sandwich or a 🥗salad that doesn’t contain 🐖ham, 🥚mayonnaise, 🍳egg or 🧀cheese will be difficult! Don’t ask me why one of the basic ingredients in every Korean sandwiches seems to be ham… 😵 Unfortunately, asking for custom-made orders is possible only in rare cases, since most of the products are pre-made. 😔 By the way, even low quality 🧀cheeses available in Korea may contain 🐖pig lard, which means that many sandwiches, salads and even 🍕pizzas cannot be considered to be 100% vegan, vegetarian, kosher or halal…

Last but not least, another huge difference between Korean and Western bread culture is the time of bread. 🕗 If you walk into a Korean bakery in the morning hoping to get freshly baked bread for breakfast, chances are that you do not find it. Instead, there will presumably be leftovers from the previous day at a cheaper price, as well as types of fried dough, such as 🍩donuts and croquettes. I understand that preparing and baking bread takes considerable time and, unlike Western countries, many South Korean bakeries schedule their baked goods to be ready by noon or later in the afternoon. 🕜 Just be aware of this as you plan your day. And if you need bread for breakfast, maybe buying it in advance is an idea. 😉

After all, it seems that regular Western-style food is not what you may be used from your home country. Whatever reasons you may have – religious, health-wise, ethical, etc. – if it is important for you to avoid consuming certain things, then I recommend checking the labels (which hopefully exist) of each product individually.

Alternatively, look out for all vegan bakeries or vegan cafes, of which a few exist in Seoul. I will gradually post and share their location with you as I visit them. In the meantime, check out this Instagram page, where reviews will be uploaded first and at regular intervals.

*) I wonder whether people say this as a joke because of the pun, or whether they actually believe in this “logic”… 😶❓