Chuseok sweet treats continue to delight even after the harvest holiday
With soaring food prices and fading Confucian practices, the Chuseok harvest holiday's traditional meal with dozens of home-cooked dishes is becoming increasingly streamlined year after year. But the sweets that come afterward are enjoying a newfound popularity, even after Chuseok is over.
These traditional confectioneries, known as hangwa in Korean, have gone from being untouched treats that turn stale on the tabletops of jesa (ancestral rites) to one of the trendiest bites that locals in their 20s and 30s can’t get enough of.
This year, only the earliest of birds were able to get their hands on hangwa from stores specializing in these desserts.
Hangwa at famous Korean confectionery store Howondang in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, were sold out three weeks before the Chuseok holidays even began this year.
“This is always our busiest time but this year has been especially hectic as orders have nearly tripled,” an employee of Howondang told the JoongAng Daily. “We’ve had to close our online sales for half a month now because we were so backed up.” The website is still closed nearly a week after Chuseok.
Jangin Hangwa which specializes in traditional Korean deep-fried honey cookies called yakgwa, sells out in under 10 seconds when it goes on sale online, regardless of the time of year. Locals liken buying these yakgwa to getting tickets for a famous K-pop idol's concert.
“The recent craze for traditional desserts in Korea is influenced by the retro trend that has been ongoing around the world and bolstered by mukbang [eating room] YouTubers who are always on the lookout to eat new foods with fun textures,” said Jeong Woon-kyeong. Jeong is a professor of culinary arts and also the author of “K-Dessert: Trendy Korean Desserts That Have Combined the Past and the Present” (2022) (translated).
The first record of traditional sweets dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), according to the Academy of Korean Studies. They were served to royals during festivities. Korean deep-fried sweets called yumilgwa were apparently famous in China’s Yuan Dynasty, receiving “great praise for their soft and chewy textures.”
But beyond taste, what is unique about Korean traditional desserts is their countless varieties, said Jeong.
“There is no limit to these confectioneries. Koreans have a knack for applying different ingredients to existing desserts. For instance, with simple seolgi or rice cake. Koreans have produced many kinds like pumpkin seolgi, chocolate seolgi, carrot seolgi and fig seolgi. While East Asian countries may have similar desserts, the endless varieties are what makes Korean desserts stand out.”
Korean confectioneries continue to evolve.
“Young people are pairing traditional desserts with Western foods such as wine, cheese, chocolate and ice cream,” said Jeong. “Korean traditional desserts these days are about combining the present and the past.”
The Korea JoongAng Daily selected three Korean desserts that have recently been brought back into the spotlight by the younger generation and examined the different ways that the snacks are enjoyed today.
Literally translated, yakgwa means “medicine cookie.” In the Joseon Dynasty, yakgwa was thought to be a confectionery that was nutritious and good for health, mainly because of the honey, according to Donguibogam, a medical encyclopedia written and compiled by Joseon-era doctor Heo Jun.
The traditional method of making yakgwa dictates that the dough be made with chocheong (Korean rice syrup) and then coated in the sweet syrup again after it is deep-fried.
Yakgwa are most commonly shaped like chrysanthemum flowers, though they vary depending on which region of Korea the sweet treat comes. The taste differs by seller as well.
Part of the fun of the yakgwa trend, says a college student with the surname Song, is to try different yakgwa and discover what kinds she likes.
“Just like how we say there is no shade of red lipstick that is the same on Earth, every yakgwa is different,” said Song. “It is a whole world and it is exciting and fun to learn about it.”
With a chewy texture at the edges and gooey near the center, some call yakgwa the “Korean brownie.”
Popular ways that locals in their 20s and 30s enjoy the cookie is to eat it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Some put it in an air-fryer or microwave it briefly before adding toppings which makes the cookie’s exterior slightly crispier and the inside gooier.
The combination of warm yakgwa and cold ice cream is quite heavenly. The two meld perfectly while highlighting the cookie’s subtle cinnamon flavor. This version also gives yakgwa an extra crunch as the coldness of the ice cream slightly hardens the edges of the cookie.
Before the Korean retro dessert trend, juak (fried rice cake) was not so well-known among modern-day people. It isn’t usually served during any traditional holidays and isn’t easy to find.
But for the royals during the Joseon Dynasty, juak was a confectionery that couldn’t be missed during festivities. Donguibogam records that juak was mostly eaten in the Kaesong area (the capital during the Goryeo Dynasty) when important guests visited or was given as wedding gifts.
Its sweet outer casing and shape, which is a small circle with a hole in the middle, has earned it the nickname “K-donut” by young locals.
Cafe Yeon Li Hui Jae in Paju, Gyeonggi, is famous for its juak with various toppings such as fruits, chocolate, jam, nuts and cheese. Prices range from 2,500 won ($1.79) to 3,800 won depending on the toppings which change throughout the seasons.
Yeon Li Hui Jae currently has two pop-up stores open, one in the Galleria Department Store in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, and another in Galleria Department Store in Gwanggyo, Gyeonggi.
Juak is also easy to make at home with relatively simple ingredients. So while there aren’t many places that sell juak, those who are curious can experience the dessert at home.
Gotgam or dried persimmon is another staple of Chuseok. It is peeled persimmon that has been dried for about three weeks outside during winter. It is then kept in a closed container until sugar crystals naturally form on the exterior.
The method was used during the Joseon Dynasty to keep the fruit from rotting.
The end result is an incredibly sweet and chewy candy similar to dried mango, but with more texture since the persimmon is whole.
A modern-day dish version is gotgam cheese walnut roll. It is made by scooping out some of the insides of the dried persimmon, stuffing it with cream cheese and chopped walnuts, then cutting it into slices.
The creaminess of the cream cheese balances out the strong sugary flavor of the fruit while the walnuts give the dish more texture and a pleasant nuttiness.
It is often paired with wine.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]