Taste of black: animal- or plant-based?

Ice cream colored with black sesame at Blackburn’s 블랙번즈 in Seoul, 2019.

🖤 Black is chic.

🕶 Black is cool.

🎩 Black is always fashionable.

Now, black FOOD is the new black.

And if this hasn’t already been news to you…
There’s so much more black food beside Oreo cookies!

While in many parts of the world, activated charcoal powder is a rising star among natural food colorants, South Korea is still blocking its journey to the peninsula because of health concerns. But Korea has its own “black food”. There’s technically no NEED for charcoal. [Who wants to eat charred wood anyways???😝] In fact, there exists a whole array of ingredients which are (some traditionally, some more recently) used to dye all types of food in magnificent black.

Regular sesame seeds (raw), roasted sesame seeds and roasted black sesame seeds.

First and foremost, there is black sesame. Sesame is an omnipresent ingredient in Korean cuisine (see “About the Name of the Homepage“). The black variation, which is referred to either as heugimja (흑임자) or geomeunkkae (검은깨) in Korean, is less common and generally more expensive than the buff-colored sesame. Regardless of its original scarcity and associated exclusiveness resulting in a higher price, black sesame is nowadays consciously appreciated for aesthetic reasons in food preparation. Just like regular sesame, black sesame seeds are frequently used to garnish foods by adding the final decorative touch. However, black sesame seeds can also star as the main ingredient in a certain dish, favored because they bring the usual taste 👅, smell👃 and nutrients of regular sesame – plus optical effects!👁

Korean rice cakes, aka tteok (떡), which appear in innumerable diversity, may contain black sesame and are then normally vegan.🌱🍡 For instance, injeolmi or other types of glutinous rice cakes can be coated in black sesame. There is also rice porridge, which mainly consists of rice, water and black sesame! This kind of porridge is called heugimja juk (흑임자죽) or geomeunkkae juk (검은깨죽) and it is one of the few veggie-friendly soups and porridges in Korea. It turns darker and richer the more black sesame is mixed into it. Ground black sesame seeds may also be added to tofu and some kinds of Korean jellies, which gives the final product a grayish tone.

Beside these more traditional dishes, foods newer to Korea such as bakery products and modern dessert items, may also be colored with ground black sesame seeds. In bakeries, you can find black cookies, macarons, scones or breads. 🍪🍞🍰 Especially vegan bakeries in Seoul are leading the way in using sesame seeds as a natural and plant-based food colorant. 🌱 Other sweet treats, which you might come across, are bingsu and ice cream with black sesame flavor. 🍦 If you are lucky, one of those artisan gelato stores serves black sesame ice cream on the day you visit!

In other parts of contemporary Korean cuisine, however, a whole other ingredient is very popular: Squid ink. 🦑 A recent food trend involves coloring anything ranging between bread, pizza, pasta, even ice cream with this natural ink. 🦑🍞🦑🍕🦑🍝🦑🍦 Apparently, the black and white contrast is a favorite among food designers, so many black foods are accompanied with a white component, such as white powdery garnish, fillings of cream cheese or mozzarella topping. The appearance surely is stunning. 🤩 But be aware, that these products are not veggie-friendly.🚫🌱 According to Wikipedia, the ink is extracted from the dead animal.

Yet another natural ingredient, which is used for its black color is a curious organism scientifically referred to as Umbilicaria esculenta. The first time I encountered it, it looked to me like pieces of scorched skin or some kind of dried seafood… 🤔 The Korean name translates to “rock ear mushroom” (seogi beoseot 석이버섯 石耳), in correspondence with the “wood ear mushroom” (mogi beoseot 목이버섯 木耳). The latter is a jelly fungus, commonly used in Asian cuisine and perhaps more familiar by the name Mu Er (Auricularia auricula-judae). Umbilicaria, however, is no fungus. Biologically, Umbilicaria is classified as a type of lichen. What is this mysterious organism? 🕵️‍♀️

No animal. No plant. No fungus. No alga. No moss.

Lichen.

Lichen are something on their own! Actually, they are symbiotic organisms, which consist of fungi and algae components. Fascinating, eh? 🤓

Its color does not mix with water, so the lichen are ground into powder and then mixed with dry ingredients. Alternatively, it is cut into fine strips and used sparingly for garnish. Supposedly, there exist some kinds of rice cakes, which are colored with it, but I have not seen any recently… It may be rather difficult to find it these days and – contrary to sesame and squid ink products – nothing you will encounter in daily life.

What’s the difference between plant-based and animal-based? How to tell whether something is colored with squid ink? 🦑🌱

In general, foods that have been colored with squid ink have a subtle, but distinct smell to them. Koreans largely categorize this as “fishy smell” (birinae 비린내), but they apply the term to various odors, including those at fish markets but also blood or overcooked soy beans. Hence, it is a rather broad description of (slightly?) differing olfactory experiences. In the given case, the smell is reminiscent of cuttlefish (squid, calamari, sepia etc.) for obvious reasons… 👃🦑 Sesame, on the other hand, brings a nutty flavor. 👃🥜 On top of that, sesame also exhibits deeper, roasted aromas. Depending on your background, you might perceive the smell as more dominant than in familiar sesame products, since Koreans preferably use roasted sesame seeds.
Unfortunately, by the time you smell that something is fishy, you’ve probably also already taken a bite out of it. [Too late….😖]

So let’s take a step back in time and examine the shady food item beforehand. 👀 There are obvious differences in appearance! The skins of sesame normally remain visible, despite having been ground finely. Consequently, black foods can be distinguished based on texture and color-pattern: While squid ink (liquid) creates a smooth and homogeneous tone in the final product, foods colored with black sesame (ground into powder or paste) exhibit tiny black dots and may have a slightly gritty mouthfeel.

But you don’t always get a good look at the object in question… 🔬 […much less permission to dissect it 🥽🔪] So, after all, the best way of knowing the secret behind the color is by doing some research beforehand. 👓 [Apart from reading this article, undertaking certain studies directly prior to purchase are warmly recommended! 📖]
It requires minimal Korean skills to apply the following steps:

  • The Korean word for squid ink “먹물” (pronounced meongmul) or more precisely “오징어먹물” (ojing-eo meongmul) is sometimes included in the name of the food product. This is of course the easiest way of identifying it! But the labeling of food items in Korea is “very creative” [not to say random], so you cannot rely on “ink” being mentioned in the title 100% of the time. [Among the image captions here, there are plenty of examples.]
  • Ideally, there is an ingredient list which provides the most precise answer. One look at the allergen warning of a food label disclosing the word “오징어” (ojing-eo – meaning squid) is enough to reveal that the color is of animal origin.
  • If neither of above options are given, asking the vendor for clarification shall be your final strategy. [Provided they are informed about the products they sell, which is sadly not always the case.] You can inquire about the source of the color by saying something like this:

    혹시 오징어 먹물 들었어요?
    Hoksi ojing-eo meongmul deureosseoyo?
    “Has squid ink been added to this?” 🦑

    If the reaction is “Neh” (네), a “Yaeh” (예) or a vigorous nod, you know that your hypothesis has been confirmed. 🧐

Korean dishes which are traditionally considered Black Food

Dried black soy beans (seoritae 서리태).

Beside black sesame, there are other foods of which black variations exist.

One of these are black soy beans and other types of black-colored beans. [There are indeed numerous different kinds!] Using them in cooking results normally in a darker colored product but not in a rich black tone of the entire food. For instance, tofu and soy milk made from black soy beans exhibit a grayish tint instead of the regular cream-colored tone. In order to achieve a stronger color effect, however, black sesame seeds may have been used additionally.

Store displaying an assortment of various grains and beans – including glutinous black rice and black soy beans – at Sinwon market 신원시장, Seoul 2019.

Moreover, there are also variations of rice, which are black. Although, there are diverse types of rice, ranging from round-grain, long-grain, wild rice and glutinous rice, the general Korean name for black-colored rice is heukmi (흑미 黑米). This name stands in contrast to regular white rice (baekmi 백미 白米), which is the peeled form of “brown rice” (hyeonmi 현미 玄米). Although raw black rice appears to be black, in cooked form, the color turns out to actually be dark purple. When mixed with other ingredients, such as white rice, the black rice dyes its surroundings purple. Hence, foods that have black rice mixed into them, exhibit a purple tint. 💜

Apart from ingredients that are labeled “black” but actually aren’t thaaat black when used in cooking, there is one dish that is typically considered as black food: Jjajang myeon (짜장면). Koreans have even dedicated a day to it – April 14, the “Black Day”! To be more precise, the day is not entirely dedicated to the dish itself, but rather to singles: On the occasion of “Black Day”, when singles order this dish, they come out as lonely. 🥢👤 Hopefully another soul discovers them eating all alone by themselves and joins them. 🥢👤🥢👤 Enjoying food in company, makes everything taste better, doesn’t it?! 🥢👥😊 Perhaps the meal of Jjajang myeon shared over some good conversations develops into something more? 🥢👥 💘 Who knows…? 🥰 [Before we delve into romantic day-dreaming, let’s get back to the topic!] Apart from facilitating finding at least an eating partner… What IS Jjajang myeon??? In short, it is an originally-Chinese-but-Koreanized-dish featuring long wheat noodles with a “black” sauce, which is normally neither halal, nor kosher, nor veggie-friendly. ❗️🐷🚫🌱 (Unless you know a veggie-friendly restaurant whose menu includes Jjajang myeon or you possess advanced Korean language skills to customize it.) [More details in a future Instagram post. Possibly in mid-April…]

Regarding the color… Decide for yourselves, whether you would term the color of the sauce as black. 🤨 Anyhow, this dish is (officially) designated as black food in Korea….

Black is black. Or is it not?

Okay, I admit. Korea’s black foods are not quite the same as charcoal-colored foods. If you prefer to avoid animal-based black food 🚫🦑, your only reliable friend is black sesame.💚🌱 Beside the color being less intensive and the possibility of spotted patterns or grainy textures, there is also a certain taste and smell associated with each of these natural food colorants. Charcoal, on the other hand, is more neutral in flavor and the black tone seems more impressive.

But why not choose a food BECAUSE of its specific flavor?

Why not choose a food BECAUSE it contains more minerals and nutrients than plain versions?

You just got to love black sesame. 🖤

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Mountains of snow and icy clouds: Korean Bingsu 빙수

Anyone who tried it won’t forget the refreshing experience of eating this typical Korean dessert: Bingsu.

Milk-based Bingsu garnished with persimmon and jujube (daechu 대추) at Oknumong 옥루몽, Seoul 2017.

What is Bingsu? What is Patbingsu?

So you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it yet?
Let me TRY to explain it in words…

  • Spoonfuls of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bliss.
  • The ultimate cool-down for tongue and tummy.
  • Your [childhood] dreams about catching snowflakes with your mouth come true. (This snow actually tastes GOOD!)
  • Fantasies of eating fluffy, frozen clouds floating in the sky. Of course those clouds are icy! It’s cold up there!
  • … [I better stop here, before my sugar-fueled imagination takes my mind to even stranger places…🤪]

Anyways, the name “bingsu” itself seems rather unexciting, it translates simply to “frozen water” based on the following Sino-Korean characters:
氷 frozen, snow (bing 빙) ❄️
+ 水 water (su 수) 💧

Likewise, the origins of bingsu seem to relate to actual snow which has been sweetened with things such as honey or fruits.🍯🍓 Hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago. But eating freshly fallen snow is a custom that has been observed in various cultures. Today, desserts similar to bingsu exist in other countries – with varying toppings and different names.* The characteristic of Korean bingsu, then, is combining ice with a sweet sauce made from red beans called pat (팥). Hence, patbingsu (팥빙수) may be the most common name for the Korean dessert. 🇰🇷

But Korean bingsu has drastically developed within the past decades.

Food stall displaying image of old-style bingsu. Buyeo, summer 2019.

At least since the 1950s, the “frozen water” was garnished with diversifying ingredients. As modern Western-style ingredients became more easily available and fashionable, soon milk or cream was poured over the ice and condensed milk was used as an additional sauce, beside the classic red bean paste.🥛 Common other toppings included pieces of rice cake🍡, fruit jelly🍊, canned fruit cocktail🍍, corn flakes🌽 and perhaps also those pricey imported nuts🥜. To top things off, bingsu could be crowned with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream🍦. Adding a cherry🍒 in the center would eventually complete it – at least in the eyes of Korean singer Yoon Jong Shin (윤종신), who expresses his love for the dessert in the song Patbingsu (팥빙수, 2007).

Considering these toppings, bingsu can hardly be appealing to vegans. 🚫🌱 Sometimes it is not even veggie-friendly if gelatin-containing fruit jellies are used! 🐖 Still, when bingsu was made following the old-fashioned method, it was possible to customize orders and request to omit specific unwanted toppings.

However, in recent years, bingsu has been evolving radically. It is changing not just in terms of ingredients as new toppings and flavors are constantly being created, but also thanks to technical progress. The regular crushed ice, which is (easily) produced by strong blenders, is being replaced by frozen liquids which are processed by high-tech machines. Depending on the machine, bingsu comes in various textures ranging from snowflakes🌨 to fluffy layers of thin ice.❄️ The most common base for this ice, however, is not pure water anymore. 🚫💧 Instead, it is a blend of sweetened dairy🥛, which may be additionally flavored with fruit extracts🍓, chocolate🍫, green tea powder🍵 or similar aromas.

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What does Bingsu taste like? What types of Bingsu are there?

As a consequence, there is an endless diversity of bingsus now. Naturally, there exists patbingsu, which today is a milk-based shaved ice with red bean paste. Beside the classic pat topping, there are variations with and without pat, e.g. fruit bingsu, green tea bingsu, injeolmi rice cake bingsu, chocolate bingsu, and so many more. These names describe the main flavor and most distinct ingredients of any given bingsu. If it’s called “strawberry bingsu” (ttalgi bingsu 딸기빙수), then expect strawberry topping. “Oreo bingsu” is garnished with Oreo cookies (maybe also crumbles of Oreos underneath the milky ice). A “green tea patbingsu” (nokcha / geurinti / malcha patbingsu 녹차/그린티/말차 팥빙수) is a tea-flavored bingsu with red bean topping.** You get the idea.

Only when something is labelled as “old-fashioned bingsu” (yennal bingsu 옛날빙수) or “traditional bingsu” (jeontong bingsu 전통빙수), it gets a bit confusing. Eventually, you may end up with different things. Either it is a bingsu with a potpourri of toppings similar to those described in Yoon Jong Shin’s homage to patbingsu: Red bean paste, (canned or fresh) fruit, cornflakes, (ice) cream and some type of sweet sauce (condensed milk, chocolate sauce and/or fruit jam). Alternatively, the bingsu is held rather simple and subtle – toppings are limited to red bean sauce (and maybe some rice cakes, soy bean powder or similar things for garnish) on a milk-flavored base. This kind of bingsu is normally less sweet and aims to accommodate people with an “old-fashioned” or “conservative” taste – generally elderly people or so-called purists. Yet another type concerns the texture of the frozen base: Apart from toppings, the term “old-fashioned” may refer to the “old” way of making bingsu with crushed ice. To be more precise, ice cubes are cut into more or less small pieces by a blender or a similar machine. The resulting consistency is not quite as fine and watery as a slushy but it is rather grainy, so you can see and feel individual pieces of ice. Hence, you will be able to chew ice crystals and there is a certain crunch to it. This stands in stark contrast to modern versions of bingsu which are produced using modern bingsu-machines.

Patbingsu garnished with slices of chestnut at Jangkkobang 장꼬방, Seoul 2019.

Now, this is actually were the REAL bingsu talk may begin.

Bakery Cafe offering various flavors of Bingsu in two different textures: Soft shavings versus ice. Seoul, summer 2019.

Contrary to bingsu with grainy texture, which may be referred to as “ice bingsu” (eoreum bingsu 얼음빙수), the consistency of most modern bingsus exhibits a high level of fineness. There is no need for chewing (except for chunky toppings), since the frozen particles instantly melt in your mouth. The texture is soooooo soft! Varying with the type of machine, the shaved ice comes in differing shapes and sizes. Most popular is the one which transforms milky liquids instantly into tiny ice crystals reminiscent of powdery snow, called “snowflake” (nunkkot 눈꽃) in Korean. There are also bingsus featuring elongate pieces of shaved ice looking like short, hollow sticks, although this is a rather rare variety. At some places, the frozen base has a texture as soft and fluffy as cotton candy. This kind comes second to the “snowflake bingsu” (nunkkot bingsu 눈꽃빙수) and is largely referred to as “planer bingsu” (daepae bingsu 대패빙수), since it is created from planing frozen substances to acquire flat, elongated wooden ice chips. In a similar method, thin layers are cut off from a block of ice and the shavings are eventually sweetened with drizzles of (milky) sauces to make bingsu.
[An extra section dealing with the quality of bingsu may be added later.]

Overall, modern bingsus have a more polished look compared to the rustic, old-fashioned ones. While some contemporary bingsus are modestly garnished with one or two ingredients, there are varieties which are equipped with an imposing assortment of toppings. Again, a potpourri of sweet treats but on a whole different of level. 🔼🆙️ There are bingsus which feature ice cream🍦, are decorated with shavings of chocolate🍫, filled with cookies🍪, have a piece of cake on the side🍰 or are garnished with macarons🍬. Just to name a few of the common toppings. Apart from those, you can encounter bingsu dressed up in cotton candy or adorned with tapioca pearls… or powdered with cheese…🧀 [No kidding.]

Let’s be honest, when it’s time for dessert but you can’t decide on which one, what better choice is there than bingsu? 🍧 Because you can have multiple desserts AT THE SAME TIME!!!🍭🤩 Everything your sweet-tooth loves is combined literally inside one single dish: hyper-pimped Korean bingsu. 🍧💫 Edible makeup and glitter as sugary (chocolate) sprinkles. 👄 Dessert decadence. [More on food and fashion in contemporary South Korea here.]

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How to eat Bingsu and where to find it

First of all, bingsu is normally not eaten alone. ❌👤 It is a dish, that is shared in company, as a special treat or dessert after a proper meal. [Exceptions due to individual circumstances may apply.] While single-serving bingsus are available at some coffee shops these days, the regular bingsu size is calculated to serve two or more persons. ✅👥 So if you want to eat bingsu, you need to find a friend who is willing to share it with you. [Or whom YOU are willing to share it with.] Anyways, this explains the question of “How many spoons do you need?” (숟가락 몇개 드릴까요?) which normally follows an order of bingsu. The average price of 9000 KRW to 15.000 KRW for one bingsu also suggests that it is [originally] designed to feed several persons.

Advertising Bingsu menu as “Summer Snow” in Seoul 2019.

Once you recruited your bingsu-buddy and have a bingsu-date, the next thing you need is actual bingsu. 👫🍧👬🍧👭 So where do you find bingsu? During the summer time, bingsu is available at most coffee shops (curiously enough, not [yet?] Starbucks), bakery cafes as well as certain fast food chains in Korea. These locations normally have eye-catching advertisements for their bingsu creations, so you cannot miss them. ☀️🍧⛱ At some point in the year, however, they will disappear from the seasonal menus and won’t show up until next summer. But rest assured! There exist various places which offer bingsu throughout the year, including bingsu specialty shops! 🌨🍧☃️

Next, how do you eat bingsu? What is the proper way of eating bingsu? This has been a polarizing topic ever since. It is beyond doubt, that the one and only tool is a (long) spoon. 🥄 But there is discussion about the order and technique of eating bingsu. Some begin with stirring the bingsu to properly mix the toppings with the frozen base. These people represent the “mix-eaters” (bibyeomeok 비벼먹). As a consequence, the carefully assembled bingsu, which may have resembled a mountainous landscape of sweet treats, is instantly transformed into a colorful mush spotted with chunks of various shapes and sizes. 🏔 ➡️🤮 Opposed to this, there is the faction of the non-mixers, the so-called peomeok (퍼먹) – literally “scoop-up-eaters”. Their technique involves eating bingsu roughly from top to bottom, which means each bite has a different taste depending on the topping they scooped up. In general, the mixing technique is most prevalent among fans of the old-fashioned bingsu. Non-mixers seem to possess a pronounced sense for visual aesthetics as opposed to the mix-eaters, who prefer an even taste over appearance. [Better choose your bingsu-party wisely to avoid conflicts!] Furthermore, even among non-mixers, there are various strategies for tackling the frozen mountain. While some dig towards the center eager to find the treasures hidden inside (some bingsus are filled!), others shovel even layers off of their bingsu. The difference is that, in effect, the vertical digging eventually causes the cave of shaved ice to collapse, whereas the horizontal excavation technique may create a bottom layer barren of flavorful toppings.

Another thing regarding the consumption of bingsu are additional toppings. Some locations serve bingsu with a complimentary sauce on the side, e.g. extra condensed milk, cold espresso or green tea sauce. This is to ensure that consumers are able to enjoy leftover shaved ice with the proper flavor. According to personal preference and with granted permission (!) from your bingsu-buddy, pour the sauce over the bingsu and thus control the level of sweetness in your bingsu.

Last but not least, a final point that deserves consideration when consuming bingsu, is speed. ⏰ You certainly don’t want to let your bingsu melt into soup 🍲 and then go fishing for chunky bites. 🎣 Or do you??? And if you gobble it up too quickly, you might experience “brain freeze”⚡️, although it’s not as easy to get with bingsu as it is with slushies, frozen smoothies or milkshakes.🥤 At least attempt to find an adequate pace.

Long story short, there is no right or wrong way of eating bingsu, as long as you enjoy it.

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🌱 Is Bingsu vegan? How to get vegan Bingsu 🌱

The brief answer to above question is:
No. Bingsu is not vegan by default. 🚫🌱
But there are ways for you to still get a taste of bingsu!👇

In general, vegans may have initial difficulty partaking in this part of Korean food culture. However, you can make your own vegan bingsu with your good-old blender or a food processor that is strong enough to cut ice cubes or frozen fruit. In essence, the formula for home-made, old-fashioned bingsu is simple: Crushed ice topped with whatever sweet treats your heart may desire. The finer you manage to crush the ice, the smoother the texture of the final bingsu.

Otherwise, if you want to eat out with friends in Korea, there are the following options…

  • a) Find a location which offers old-fashioned bingsu AND speak enough Korean to customize it by omitting any dairy or possibly egg-based toppings. 🗣🇰🇷🚫🥛🥚🍪🍦🍰🍫 (Warning: Plain, crushed ice with fewer toppings may be considered to taste bland by shop keepers. 🤷‍♀️🤷‍♂️)
  • b) Find a coffee shop or bakery cafe that uses non-dairy substances (e.g. fruit juices) for their frozen base. ❄️🍊❄️🍓❄️🍍 Again, you need to confirm that the toppings are vegan, too. (In case of high sensitivity or allergies, be aware that there may be traces of dairy left on the machines.)
  • c) Pilgrimage to a vegan coffee shop. At present, there is literally only a handful of cafes in Seoul, which offer bingsu made with plant-based milk instead of dairy. 🌱🥛 You can find a list of locations here. Some of these locations use bingsu-machines which produce high-quality snowflake consistency – a texture impossible to achieve at home unless you own the [expensive] professional equipment.

After all, enjoying 100% plant-based, vegan bingsu is a challenge but no impossibility! 🌱🍧💚

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Notes by the author

* Just to mention a few, there’s the American ‘snow cone’ and Hawaiian ‘shave ice’. Chinese versions are called “bàobīng” (刨冰) or “[hóngdòu] shābīng” ([红豆]沙冰) [with red beans], and the Japanese variant is referred to as “kakigōri” (かき氷).

** There are people, who dislike the sweetened red bean paste (pat 팥) or have an allergy against beans and legumes, hence the common distinction in the name.

Easy-to-go vegan ice cream in Korea

These days, I often find myself thinking “Need… water… need… ice…” 🌡☀️😵

In an unstoppable impulse to find something that would quickly bring relief ❄️, I rummaged through various ice boxes, looking for ice cream. 🍦 (To be more precise, those of the popsicle kind – the “single servings”.) While checking the loooong labels with TINY letters on the colorful packaging, its contents were on the verge of melting [unforgivable sin!] and it felt like I would soon get more than just strange looks from shopkeepers… 😅

Even when something looked like it was a simple, water-based popsicle, its ingredient list surprisingly often revealed that there was some kind of animal component hidden inside. Beside mysterious additives for sweetness🍭, aromas👅 and color🌈, there was milk powder🥛, dairy-based calcium🥛 and gelatin🐷 [yikes!]! And sadly enough, those ingredients were not always marked in the allergen section. 🚫📝

Furthermore, even if one kind of ice cream contained only plant-based ingredients, that didn’t mean that another flavor of the same kind was also vegan. 🚫🌱Seriously each one needed confirmation.

🍦 It can be hard to find good ice cream.

But who thought the hunt for VEGAN ice cream would be this difficult and frustrating? 🌱🍦

[Whether the available vegan options are delightful after all, is a whole new topic…😣]

Anyhow, here’s a collection of meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free (though not guilt-free) vegan ice cream, which are commonly sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

✍️ This compilation is valid in summer 2019 and may gradually expand as (hopefully) new discoveries are made. ✍️

I’m an ice cream junkie, I know. 🍦🍨😍🍧❄️

If you have more time, money and patience to go to a (vegan) cafe that serves vegan ice cream, congratulations. Enjoy that blissful moment for me, while you’re at it!

So where ARE those cafes with vegan ice cream? 🍨 They are rare and more expensive than regular ice cream places… 💲😓 Currently, there exist merely a handful of such locations in Seoul. You can find an overview of sit-in locations serving various kinds of home-made frozen desserts on this page. 🛋💁‍♂️🍨🙋‍♀️

And what do YOU do in the heat of summer, when you don’t have access to your freezer (which is ideally filled with frozen fruit) but you are in desperate need of that sweet and refreshing cool-down THIS VERY INSTANT??? 🌊🤯❄️

[This is a serious question. Very curious about other survival strategies.]

Tips on how to understand Korean food labels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does it seem to get complicated again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oreo cookies listing wheat, milk and soy as allergens.

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

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

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

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

Additional notes by the author

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

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

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

Language of food

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

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

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

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

Meeting Potatoes in Korea

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

Thinking you know potatoes? 🥔

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

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

Congratulations, you know a lot about potatoes. 👍

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Milk Blended with Potato” at Starbucks in 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

Additional notes from the author:

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

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

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.

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? 🤪