Cold favorites

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Cold favorites

Standing out in the raw of winter and eating sounds like the last thing you would want to do. Tough Koreans do not mind chilly weather, though, as long as they can have some bungeoppang. The goldfish-shaped cakes stuffed with red bean paste have been a staple street food for decades, but are available in the wintertime only, for the most part. Fans of the goldfish cakes like nothing more than throwing the treats back while jumping up and down in freezing weather, washing them down with hot spicy soup from a throwaway paper cup.

Korea's favorite winter snacks have had their ups and downs. Since the 1930s, dough and red bean paste have been the main ingredients. Over time, vendors experimented with the shapes of the iron molds they used, thus was born the goldfish shape. After the 1970s, a chrysanthemum pattern took popularity lead, but was soon eclipsed by the goldfish.

Along with the goldfish cakes, steady streetside sellers include gungoguma, baked sweet potatoes and hotteok, pancakes stuffed with brown sugar.

During Korea's lean years, the snacks were affordable treats for the masses. Now, they are still favorites, but contain a touch of nostalgia. Usually, you can fill up on the winter classics for 2,000 won ($1.60).



The goldfish cake you get on the streets has no fishy ingredients, just dough and red bean paste. The dough ingredients actually look pretty Western -- flour, milk, salt, eggs, margarine and baking powder. What you get after baking the stuff for about five minutes, however, is nothing like muffins or cookies. The surface color is golden brown, the texture is crispy and the inside is soft and gooey.

Kim Yong-gwang, an expert bungeoppang baker who sells the treats from a stand near Kyung Hee University, says that he cannot tell the secret of his recipes. But he hints that the tender texture comes from his concoction of ingredients that keep the dough moist. Mr. Kim has baked millions of bungeoppang over the 20 years from his spot near the Hoegi subway station in northeastern Seoul. Every year around early October, Mr. Kim without fail shows up with his special equipment -- his four iron molds with goldfish patterns, an orange tent and a big sign picturing a goldfish. His sells his goldfish cakes at five for 1,000 won.

On a recent Monday around noon, Mr. Kim barely had a moment for lunch. He bakes about 20 goldfish cakes every five minutes. He nimbly fills his molds with dough from a tube and adds red bean paste. Since the mold gets hot, heated by a gas flame, timing is important, Mr. Kim says. After they're cooked, the cakes are displayed and kept warm on an iron tray just above his oven. The cakes, however, have little time to cool -- customers line up to get them fresh.

Mr. Kim's day begins at 9 a.m. and lasts 12 hours. He works through March, and the profits keep him going all year. On his best days, he takes in 150,000 won, meaning he's sold about 750 cakes. "I simply can't stop doing this, because of my customers," he says. "There are people who've been coming to me since they were little, and when they get old they bring their grandchildren."

The goldfish is not the only shape in town nowadays. There are also molds in the form of carp, shrimp and salmon. But don't worry; the recipes are mostly the same. The carp cakes are baked with butter, which vendors insist adds more flavor. Kim Hee-jung, from an online club of bungeoppang devotees named "Bungeoppang Family," says that of all the variations, the goldfish cakes are still the best.

Psychological test, Part 1

You are about to eat a goldfish cake. Where do you start? a) head b) dorsal fin c) belly d) tail

a) you are a happy-go-lucky optimist.

b) You are prudent and cautious.

c) You are masculine, active and lively.

d) You tend to get nervous but are also very compassionate.


Baked Sweet Potatoes

Columbus supposedly found sweet potatoes in South America and took them to Europe. Later they were brought to Asia, and they finally reached Korea in 1763. The sweet potato has been popular in Korea ever since, and often had to serve as a full meal during famines. No wonder Koreans over the years found every way possible to make the most of the plant. There are sweet potato cakes, salads ?you name it. But the baked sweet potatoes, eaten on the street in the wintertime, are the star. Nobody can resist them.

Where to find them? Look for large metal drums lying horizontal with little aluminum chimneys. Cooking happily inside, over firewood, are the sweet potatoes. The barrel ovens have been in use since the1950s. There are five holes on one side that have slide-out drawers which hold the potatoes while they cook.

To bake the sweet potato right, it takes a few vital skills, says an expert baker, Im Gwang-wuk, 27. With his associate, Oh Yeong-bum, 36, Mr. Im works from a barrel parked near Hongik University area in northwestern Seoul. On a recent Wednesday night after they'd sold all their stock, Mr. Im and Mr. Oh explained what it took to bake the best potato. "Choosing the right potatoes, which will turn out less juicy after they are cooked, is the most important thing," Mr. Im says. Mr. Oh says, "Using wood from pine trees is key, it gives more flavor."

The partners started the business last month, after Mr. Oh, a former bar owner in the area, went bankrupt. Mr. Im had worked as a sweet potato baker in his teens to earn some pocket money.

The two made a barrel oven, decorating it with a Jolly Roger and writing on it, in reference to a popular pornography film, "Gosh, Mrs. Sweet Potato is Having an Affair!" Also, they wrote, "You'll finally get to know how a real baked sweet potato tastes."

Business is good; they net 120,000 won per day. Charging 2,000 won for three potatoes, they go through three 10-kilogram boxes per day on average. "Baked sweet potatoes go well with a glass of milk or even kimchi," Mr. Im says, while admitting that he is starting to tire of eating them. "We are going to be here night and day until next March," Mr. Oh says, "And every year, you can find us here in winter."

Psychological test, Part 2

You have to choose from different shapes of baked sweet potatoes. Which one would you pick?

a) a water-drop shape b) a plump, round one c) a rugged one d) a cylindrical one, long and slim

a) You are a good-natured, nice person. But look out for those who would take advantage of you.

b) You are a popular figure, lively, sociable and practical.

c) Being unique in character, you want to do something different.

d) You are nice in person, but tend to be shy. People will sometimes mistake you for being coldhearted.



Hotteok would be right up there in a competition of favorite winter munchies. Translated literally, the name means "rice cake from China," but as far as anyone knows they are indigenous to Korea. Plus, the main ingredient isn't rice -- it's wheat flour. To make this winter dainty, other materials like dried milk, sticky rice powder and yeast are added to the flour, then a filling of a blend of brown sugar, cinnamon, bits of peanuts and walnuts is folded in.

A hotteok virtuoso in Seosumun, central Seoul, who identified himself only as Mr. Kim, did not want to reveal his recipe. Mr. Kim has been flipping his hotteoks on his pan every winter for the last 22 years at the same place. In the summer, he sells slippers in the same area.

Office workers nearby consider Mr. Kim's hotteok the best between-meal-snack around. They cost just 2,000 won for five. The secret to getting a delightful result lies in the dough, he explains. Allowed to rise for hours, the dough gets fluffy and gooey, which gives it a chewy texture after being cooked on an oiled pan. With dexterity, Mr. Kim takes a handful of dough, fills it with the brown sugar stuff and rolls it into balls. Seconds after putting the dough on the pan, he presses the dough with a small, round iron shaper to get the dough thin and round. Then he flips it around several times until it browns nicely.

Other than his specialty, Mr. Kim sells odeng, or (real) fish cakes cooked in a spicy soup, a year-round favorite street food. The soup gets especially popular in winter, and is the best accompaniment for hotteok. Mr. Kim starts his hotteok business from October and continues until February. He says he takes in around 200,000 won in profit every day.

Though the business is good, Mr. Kim has had to come up with more ideas to add new flavors to his standard, sweet hotteok. With the rise of living standards plus a demand for more delicate flavors, hotteok makers have come up with various other recipes ?adding sliced vegetables into the dough, or using a filling of pizza cheese and spaghetti sauce. Mr. Kim despises the new flavors, he says, but grants that he has started to serve vegetable hotteok.

Nearby, there is another street vendor specializing in corn hotteok, whose texture is more yellowish, thicker and contains corn. But Mr. Kim is not bothered by the competition.

"Whatever people say, nothing can beat this classic," he says. "We Koreans have been enjoying these since the days we always had empty stomachs."

by Chun Su-jin

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