If you’re familiar with the longtime famous variety show <I Live Alone>, you may remember this scene.
© MBC <I Live Alone>
Screenshot of a scene
where former Wonder Girls member, Sohee,
eats yakgwa (a traditional Korean confection)
Hi there! It’s 민지[Minji] from 유행[Yuhaeng], here to provide you with the latest news from Korean hipsters. You know that one food you always recommend to foreigners, but never actually eat yourself? Yep, I see you’re already nodding your head.😌
Known as a ‘cookie from ages past’
That 약과[yakgwa] you see ‘Sohee’ eating used to be one of those foods. It’s a famous traditional dessert, but not something you’d enjoy on a daily basis. It goes without saying that there was a fair bit of distance between 약과[yakgwa] and what we think of as new or hip. BUT, if I had to choose the single trendiest dessert in Korea right now, I would pick 약과[yakgwa] without hesitation!
To be honest, I actually found it a bit strange when I first heard of 약과[yakgwa]’s growing popularity because I’ve been a fan of the dessert ever since I was young! In fact, I loved it so much that during the holidays, my grandmother👵 used to buy loads of 약과[yakgwa] just for me. As she watched me dive in, she would marvel at how such a young child could enjoy 약과[yakgwa] – that’s how strong the perception was of 약과[yakgwa] being a ‘cookie from ages past now only enjoyed by adults.’ But now, that view has been turned on its head. Today, whipping up the difficult-to-acquire 약과[yakgwa] in a group of friends will catapult you to the pinnacle of hipster-hood.
But back to the point, here’s what it looks like!😆
The 약과[yakgwa] I ate this morning
This is what 약과[yakgwa] typically looks like. To make it, add honey and sesame oil to some flour and knead the resulting dough. Afterwards, shape the dough using a mold and fry the finished pieces. Can’t you almost taste the syrupy goodness just by hearing the recipe?🤭 The two components of 약과[yakgwa], 약[yak](medicine) and 과[gwa](cookie), reference how honey used to be viewed as medicine due to its scarcity and health benefits. The sweet notes of honey in the 약과[yakgwa] give it a unique flavor decidedly different from other desserts. Because of this distinct flavor profile, eating 약과[yakgwa] in combination with some ice cream, jam, and/or other sweet goodies is sure to transport you into a world of delight.
With the recent explosion of demand, unique shapes of 약과[yakgwa] from different regions have become more widely known. As new shapes and forms are developed alongside existing variants, 약과[yakgwa] of many shapes and sizes have come to fill the market shelves. Currently, the hottest variant is called ‘파지약과(yakgwa scraps),’ which gathers broken pieces of 약과[yakgwa] and sells them as a bundle. One of the selling points of 약과[yakgwa] is its characteristic gooey and glutinous texture, so it’s understandable that crushing these cookies in a way that reveals the filling inside would yield an even hotter product.
Ⓒ Naver Shopping screenshot
Crushed 약과[yakgwa], or ‘약과[yakgwa] scraps’
Yakgwa’s brothers and sisters aren’t far behind!
Alongside 약과[yakgwa], desserts made of traditional ingredients such as black sesame, adzuki bean, sweet potato, etc., have been gaining popularity as well. We call Korea’s MZ Generation (millennials + Gen Z), which enjoys these types of desserts, ‘할매니얼[hal-mae-ni-eol](grandma millennial)’ → 할매[hal-mae](grandma) + 니얼[ni-eol](part of the word ‘millennial’).
But why exactly did 약과[yakgwa] become so popular? I had an interesting conversation with my friend 윤정(Yoonjeong @choueat_bakingstudio), who works as a pâtissier. So here it is, especially for you!
Hi! I’m Yoonjeong, Minji’s friend. I work as a pâtissier in Seoul.🍪
Looking at it broadly, I think 약과[yakgwa]’s popularity is an offshoot of Newtro culture. 약과[yakgwa] fits in perfectly with the current trend of consuming/interacting with old things in new ways! There’s one more reason: 약과[yakgwa] embodies the type of desserts Koreans tend to prefer.😊 Looking at how foreign desserts such as tiramisu, tarts, and macarons were popularized in Korea, it seems many Korean renditions tend toward a denser, thicker style compared to the original. I keep this inclination in mind when I make my own recipes. There’s nothing closer to the ideal than 약과[yakgwa], a dessert which most reflects these preferences!
Recently, placing 약과[yakgwa] as a topping on western desserts such as financiers or cookies, or making such desserts in 약과[yakgwa]’s style, has become a big trend among us pâtissiers. In a sense, anything that fries flour-based dough and drenches the crispy product in syrup or honey can be seen as a close cousin to yakgwa. To point out a few, there’s India’s gulab jamun, Turkey’s tulumba, and the Western-style glazed donut. There’s even a recipe that uses the Korean snack ‘Mom’s Hand Pie’ to make 약과[yakgwa] that I recommend you all try out!
Shall we guess what the next ‘약과[yakgwa]’ will be?
To me, 약과[yakgwa] is like a leather jacket you find nestled inside a parent’s closet. You might have thought it unsophisticated and old-fashioned, but when time and circumstances align, it can always be reevaluated as trendy. Why don’t we check if there’s any food or aspect of culture we don’t appreciate in daily life because it’s been deemed ‘outdated?’ Who knows, it might become the next hip thing! If you think of something, let me know!
Have you figured out what the title of today’s issue means?
There’s a Korean expression that goes ‘if that’s all, it’s 약과[yakgwa],’ which means ‘that’s good enough.’ At first glance, you might think the 약과[yakgwa] in this saying is a homonym that has nothing to do with the edible 약과[yakgwa] introduced today, but surprisingly, the two words are the same. In the past, when 약과[yakgwa] was rare, homeowners would feel upset if a guest ate too many of the few 약과[yakgwa] prepared for an ancestral rite. In this situation, one would say ‘if that’s all, it’s 약과[yakgwa]’ to express relief that at least the guest only ate the 약과[yakgwa] out of all the food available. Isn’t that pretty interesting? So if a Korean friend offers or gifts you 약과[yakgwa], remember that they consider you a very precious guest.😘
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