Their popularity has wavered compared to the early 90s; Snacks that used to be available on almost every corner have become scarce. But many have been making a comeback recently as people crave a taste of the past. Especially as the world becomes a more uncertain place every day, the country that prides itself on its ability to quickly adapt and modernize is rounding back to homey childhood foods that bring comfort. Nowadays there are even apps that people can use to track down street food carts with gyeranppang (Korean egg bread) and kkwabaegi (Korean donuts).
And though they often go less noticed, these sweet and fluffy snacks are delicacies in their own way, along with their rich histories that have stood the test of time.
The Korea JoongAng Daily took a closer look at some of Korea’s signature bread and pastries.
Red Bean… everything!
Red bean paste is perhaps the most loved filling in East Asia. Split open a bun in Korea, and there is a good chance it will be filled with a paste made from these beans.
Red beans, called pat in Korean, are naturally sweet, but the paste version is even sweeter, as the beans are boiled in sugar water for some two hours. There are two types of paste: A smooth one in which the beans have been completely mashed and a rougher version with beans that have been only half mashed.
The bread is a top seller in many local bakeries. Paris Baguette labeled it as a “steady seller.” Its danpatppang was the third most-sold bread last year.
Another signature red bean snack is hodugwaja, or walnut-shaped bread balls stuffed with red bean paste and pieces of crunchy walnut.
Road trips in Korea aren’t complete without popping in a few of these along the way. They are most commonly found at gas stops along highways and train stations. Served warm inside a paper bag, they cost around 4,800 won for 10 balls.
According to the Academy of Korean Studies, hodugwaja first appeared in bakeries in Cheonan around 1934. The city is famous for its walnuts, being home to the country’s first walnut tree which was planted during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). In 1998, the tree was named National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 398 by the Cultural Heritage Administration.
There are many more types of bread that include red bean paste, such as hoppang (steamed bun commonly filled with pat or other savory fillings) and soboroppang (sweet bun with a streusel-like crust). Pat also boasts versatility in Korean cuisine. There is red bean bingsu (shaved ice), tteok (rice cake), ice cream, porridge, jelly, and rice noodles.
Why do Koreans love red beans so much? Paris Baguette’s PR manager Hwang Seul-gi said that it is because the ingredient is so familiar.
“Foods containing pat are mostly retro Korean foods that bring back old memories,” she said. “They appear to be steadily popular with consumers due to healthy sweetness and relatively affordable prices. Especially recently, young people in their 20s and 30s began to take interest in more traditional ingredients. This in particular has contributed to the sales of our pat-packed breads.”
Kkwabaegi is essentially a donut formed into a braid. The deep-fried bread gets a heavy dusting of sugar and sometimes, cinnamon, before being tossed inside a plastic bag and handed to customers.
One can expect to find kkwabaegi inside traditional marketplaces like Gwangjang Market in Jongno District, central Seoul, or Mangwon Market in Mapo District, western Seoul. In some cafes, however, the snack is seeing quite an upgrade in status.
Quafe, a kkwabaegi cafe franchise that began in Yeonnam-dong, Mapo District, is one of the first cafes to have come up with the idea of reimagining the snack in 2020. Its popular menus include Tiramisu Kkwabaegi (3,300 won), Unicorn Twist (2,500 won) and Salted-caramel Twist (2,900 won).
At a crowded restaurant a quarter past noon, someone might yell, “It’s like the hotteok house is on fire!”
Hotteok is a pancake-shaped fried bread filled with melted brown sugar.
The old saying refers to a loud and hectic situation. According to Cultural Heritage Administration, hotteok entered Korea through China around 1882 and many Chinese who lived in Korea set up hotteok shops in the country. There were apparently so many places that sold this snack to the extent that the number of hotteok places overtook that of seolleongtang (ox bone soup) eateries, a common local dish.
The combination of such a large number of hotteok places, their popularity and the fact that locals couldn’t understand the language that the Chinese store owners spoke, led Koreans to see the scenery around hotteok places as hectic, comparing it to a house in flames.
Different versions of the snack have appeared over the years, with fillings like savory vegetables, japchae (stir-fried noodles), chocolate and honey. There is also — unsurprisingly — red bean hotteok.
A particularly famous kind of hotteok is the seed or ssiat hotteok. It is a specialty of Busan, a port city some 325 kilometers from Seoul. This hotteok is stuffed with sunflower seeds and almond slices in addition to brown sugar.
There are also variations in the dough. Mugwort hotteok has a green hue and its dough has a pleasantly bitter smell and taste. Corn hotteok includes sweet corn powder in its dough.
Gyeranppang (gyeran is egg in Korean) makes for quite a hefty snack that also works as a light breakfast.
Some have extra toppings such as cheese, bacon, ham and leek, but all gyeranppang have an entire egg inside that gets cracked open and plopped onto a small oval-shaped metal pan. It is sprinkled with salt, covered in bread dough, and cooked until the egg inside isn’t runny.
Gyeranppang is a uniquely Korean snack but unfortunately, it has become one the hardest ones to find on the streets due to the rise in food prices, in particular, the price of eggs. The shops that remain have gone through considerable price hikes from around 300 won per bread in early 2000 to around 1,500 won to 2,000 won today.
Gyeranppang is said to have first appeared in 1984 at a street food stand near Inha University in Incheon, some 49 kilometers from the capital. The venue, called “The Original Whole Egg Nutritional Bread” (translated) is still open today. Its gyeranppang are on the cheaper side, costing 1,000 won each.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]