Classic tastes still found at candy stallsCaught up in a whirlwind of change, Koreans have long found refuge in things homey, old and sweet. Every now and then when the economy plunges and pockets shrink, Koreans turn to run-down drinking joints to drown their depression in soju. Just as suddenly, candies from their childhood fill their hearts with deep nostalgia.
Choi Byeong-guk, 50, the owner of Gyeongbuk Sanghoe, a store full of old-time Korean candies and sweets in Cheongnyangni Market, has been selling candies for almost 15 years now. “It wasn’t until the IMF crisis struck in 1997 that candies began to gain huge popularity again. I think it’s because they were cheap and tightening their belts again reminded people of hard times when those candies were one of the rarities they could enjoy,” he said.
The history of Korean candy goes back to 1946, when Haitai Confectionary, the first big-name Korean sweets company, produced Haitai Caramel. It was similar to the American caramel that U.S. soldiers used to give away to deprived Korean children, but it was made purely by Koreans’ hands and capital. The first candy was such a proud enjoyment for Koreans who had been under Japanese rule that it paved the future of the company.
But as time went by, Korean candies eventually disappeared as more sophisticated candies and other sweets came on the market, and candies like Haitai Caramel lost popularity. Park Jae-hong, the Haitai marketing manager, said that the company currently does not produce its earliest favorites.
“The first generation candy-makers no longer produce these kinds of candies. Why would they make them now when they have better materials and skills? It is next generation makers who supply old-style candies to my store,” Mr. Choi said.
Thanks to the renewed popularity of old-style candies, new candy makers are now all over suburban areas, such as Bucheon, Gyeonggi province, and Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province.
Matdrin Sikpum (roughly translated as “Familiar Food”) is one such maker in Gimhae. The company started making eight kinds of candy in 1988, including ttangkong (peanut) caramel ― a copycat of Haitai caramel, when nostalgic candies began to show up on streets and became a hit. Lee Jong-geun, chief executive officer of Matdrin, said, “I saw many people buy those candies on the street and decided to make them. We have made some profits out of it.”
In Seoul, these candies are sold at open-air stalls on streets in and around commercially bustling areas, such as Daelim-dong, Yongsan, Jegi-dong and Cheongnyangni. Some candy sellers show up suddenly on roads where there is heavy traffic.
The stalls are usually run by men and women in their late 40s or early 50s who have run stalls for as long as 20 years. One vendor, 51, who persistently declined to reveal his name, sells a cartful of candy in front of Daelim subway station. He has been selling candy for six years. Recalling his childhood in Jeolla province when those kinds of candy were scarce and only enjoyed by kids from well-off families, he attributed their new popularity to the reactionism that swept Korea following the economic hardship shortly after the IMF crisis.
His main clientele are older people who remember the taste from their childhood, and ethnic Chinese immigrants living in the area, who buy them to recall the flavor of Chinese candy and as souvenirs for family and friends back in China. Taxi drivers also buy them for snacking on while they work.
He sells more than 20 kinds of candy, with flavors such as cinnamon, coffee, peppermint and chocolate. The most popular are ttangkong caramel, yugwa (oil-and-honey candy) and hobakyeot (pumpkin candy). They have gained steady popularity and all have flavors familiar to Koreans. The price of the candy is 2,000 won ($2) for a 600-gram-basket ― very cheap compared with currently popular imported snacks. One Snickers Miniature is around 5,500 won (for a 368-gram bar) and a pack of Ritz crackers is 3,000 won.
However, the candy seller is not sure about the future of his stall, as youngsters are not very interested in the candies. “I don’t think it’s going to last very long. There are new snacks and candies out there. People will eventually go for them,” he said.
At the height of the candy’s popularity a few years ago, he sold 150,000 won to 200,000 won worth of candy a day. His sales have now decreased to 70,000 won to 80,000 won a day at most so he is considering selling something different after this year.
Changes in taste led the sharp drop in sales of Korean candies and sweets, according to a JoongAng Ilbo report on Aug. 17, 2005.
Of the hundreds of sweets and iced confectionaries offered by large companies such as Haitai, Nongshim and Lotte Samgang, it is some of the oldest products introduced in the 1970s, such as Saewookkang, Choco-pie and Bravo Cone, that are maintaining popularity.
Key to their long-lasting appeal may be extensive marketing efforts by manufacturers. For example, taking advantage of a reactionary mood in Korea, Haitai revived its Yeonyanggaeng, Simona, Babambar and Ssangssangbar. In the case of Yeonyanggaeng, first introduced in Korea in 1945, when Haitai changed the packaging and introduced new flavors for the first time in 60 years in 2004, monthly sales more than tripled from 1 billion won to 3.5 billion won, according to Ryu Hui-jeong, brand manager for Yeonyanggaeng.
The unchanged flavor and appearance of these classic candies do appeal to people who want to remember the taste of Korea’s past, yet small-scale sellers like Mr. Choi of Gyeongbuk Sanghoe don’t believe in their future. “There are not many people who like olden-day candies any more, although there are certain people who buy, so I can just get by,” he said.
Perhaps small businesses are victimized by big companies with marketing prowess. “Through massive consumer research, we found out that the young generation could be Yeonyanggaeng’s prospective consumers. New packaging and cool commercials were designed to get their attention,” said Mr. Ryu of Haitai. “People over the age of 40 wouldn’t buy it any more, but young people will in the future.”
Korea’s favorite snacks, both sweet and savory
Saewookkang, or “Shrimp Chip,” debuted in 1971 as the first snack made by Nongshim. According to the company, a pack of Saewookkang contains 3 to 5 sweet shrimp from the west coast of Korea. Despite popular belief that the chip is an old Korean product, it is actually a copy of Kappa Ebisen by Calbee, a Japanese confectioner, which introduced it in 1962.
Yeonyanggaeng was the very first Korean snack when it came out in 1945. It was a mass-produced adaptation of yanggaeng, a Japanese snack that used to be sold in theaters during Japanese rule. It is a sweet jelly made of red beans, sugar and molasses.
Orion’s Choco-pie has been popular since its introduction in 1974, partly thanks to an advertising campaign that appealed to Korean sentimentality. According to Orion, a researcher at the company thought of the snack after eating a chocolate-coated pie at a cafe in Europe. It took two years for the company to develop the technology for coating a marshmallow cake with chocolate. Choco-pie is also popular in China, which contributes $100 million to its worldwide sales of $180 million.
Bravo Cone was a must-have for dating couples, who to this day remember the catchy TV jingle from the 1970s and ’80s. The ice cream, introduced in 1971, was offered at the South Korea Red Cross Conference in 1972. Local news reported that the North Korean delegates suspected the ice cream was an American import. In 2001, Bravo Cone was certified as the oldest ice cream brand in Korea. Haitai learned how to make soft and creamy ice cream from Denmark.
Dwaejibar is an ice-cream bar coated with chocolate and crunchy nuts with a strawberry jam center. Since its introduction in 1983, “Piggy Bar” has remained one of Korea's most popular ice cream treats for over 20 years. Last year, the company boosted sales with TV commercials featuring pop star Lee Hyo-lee.
Babambar by Haitai, costing just 500 won, has never failed to attract ice-cream lovers since 1976. The chestnut-flavored vanilla ice cream has sweet chestnut bits in the center.
Haitai’s Ssangssang bar or “double” bar, since 1979, was meant to be shared with friends or lovers. One fruity frozen bar can be snapped in two.
Small and unkempt stores in front of Korean schools used to sell candies such as Apollo, Ujubyeol and Hogak Gwaja. With untidy and dusty packaging and bizarre tastes, these candies brought about rumors that they were made of birds droppings and leftover paint. There were also occasional news reports that toxic materials were found in junk sweets and schools and parents every once in a while campaigned for removing those candies from shelves.
That was then. These days, small manufacturers who have revived olden-day junk sweets are vetted by the Korean Food & Drug Administration.
At the entrance of Insa-dong in northern Seoul is a stall full of junk sweets. The sweet seller, who declined to reveal his name, is 62 years old, and sells more than 10 kinds of those sweets. He began buying the sweets from Cheongnyangni market about three years ago to sell to people in their 20s and 30s who once purchased them at stores near school when they were young. “Young people would stop and buy several kinds of these sweets, saying ‘Wow, they are still sold out there?’”
The seller also said that the heyday of junk sweets is fading away, as he makes far less than he used to make, as little as 40,000 won a day, down from 100,000 won a few years back.
Apollo used to be one of the most popular sweets children bought from stores in front of schools. The small, short plastic tube contains half jelly, half powder in artificially fruity flavors. The sweet gradually faded away until making a comeback about 10 years ago when a nostalgic mood swept the country.
Ujubyeol or “space stars” look like pretty colored pills available in grape, lemon and orange flavors. The candy used to be sold in small shops in front of Korean schools.
Hogak Gwaja, or “Whistle Candy,” is a cross between a candy and a toy. You can make a whistling sound by blowing on the candy, and then eat it afterwards.
by Kong Jun-wan
Old-style candy sellers can be found near Daelim station, line No. 2 and 6, exit 12; Cheongnyangni station, line No. 1, exit 2, and Jegi station, line No. 1, exit 2. Hours are subject to change from day to day and dependent on weather, but when out, they usually work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.