How this ancient Korean dessert is making a comeback

Tteok, bingsu, danpatjuk, soboro-ppang, fresh cut fruit – all things that come to mind when many think of typical Korean desserts. And they’re not wrong, but something is missing here.

Hangwa (한과) describes any delicate confectionery made by kneading a grain or grain flour with a sweetener (honey, rice syrup, sugar, or a combination). They are steamed or fried, then often coated in a hodgepodge of dried fruits, seeds and nuts. Tasty as they are, they are not always easy to find.

“You could only get it after performing one of the ancestral rites or at a traditional festival,” says South Korean master confectioner Kim Gyu-heun in a 2015 edition of Korea Magazine. Korean New Year, better known as Seollal (설날), is one of two major holidays that begins with a charye, or grand ancestral ceremony. That makes hangwa—variants like flaky yugwa soaked in syrup fried yakgwa to creamy puffed rice to taffy-like yeot sweets—a perfect holiday pairing. With “han” being a direct translation of “Korean” and “gwa” meaning “confectionery”, this dessert category is also one of the oldest types of sweet food in the context of Korean culinary history. So when we think of Korean desserts, why don’t we automatically think of hangwa?

It wasn’t always like this. “Eumsik-dimibang”, the first cookbook written in the Hangul alphabet, around 1670, offers several hangwa recipes, such as yakgwa, gwapyeon (boiled fruit jelly) and dasik (tea cookies). The earliest written account of hangwa consumption dates back to the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, Goryeo) era in the record Samguk Yusa. Back then, hangwa were the sweet dish of the royal class at a time when fresh fruit was unavailable during the harsh winter harvest seasons. While meat was once a staple Korean feast food, when Buddhism was adopted as the state religion and animal protein was therefore banned, hangwa took its place. Sweets have become a staple of royal functions, including weddings, birthdays and, most notably, ancestral rites; for some nobles who could afford it, it was even served in more everyday settings, such as afternoon tea. Yet, as fruit was more abundantly available and (with the adoption of Neo-Confucianism) meat once again became part of celebratory customs in the Joseon era, the charm of the hangwa only grew stronger.

Combing through memos recorded at various royal birthday parties, the researchers found the most striking revelation was “the overwhelming number and wide range of… [these] traditional sweets, which demonstrates that these foods were highly developed and considered very important in the royal palace. Prominent families also began circulating their own unique variations of hangwa, as they had sufficient funds to spare the 4 kilograms (about 20 cups) of rice needed to produce 1 kilogram of most variations of hangwa.

This ratio turned out to be the real problem and resulted in a national security problem. Apart from oil and sugar rationing, rice was already a precious commodity subject to poor harvest seasons. Professor Kim Bok-rae of Andong National University concludes that “rice was a symbol of wealth for landowners, but one of exploitation for tenant farmers and wage laborers”. The elitist consumption of rice, and especially hangwa – due to the need for large volumes of valuable ingredients – drove food scarcity so out of control that desserts were legally deemed harmful to people at various times throughout the world. time. Hangwa bans were issued by two Goryeo kings. At the end of the Joseon era, a law only allowed citizens to participate in the consumption of hangwa during ancestral rites or weddings. Caught in possession of confectionery outside these limits? Eighty strokes of the bamboo stalk awaited you. Ouch.

As if internal strife wasn’t enough, hangwa was likely devalued when Korean food culture was dismantled by outside influence, most notably the Japanese. To some extent, the Japanese occupation helped alleviate food insecurity: it helped popularize a bread culture in Korea and thus reduced dependence on a dwindling rice supply. And thanks to Japanese technology, farmers were able to grow rice more efficiently (and still do today, albeit with many obstacles). “destroy the national identity of [Joseon] people and destroy their national culture. »

The desserts continued to suffer from the American occupation and the dictatorship disguised as democracy. Yet the hangwa exists in South Korea in the 21st century, if only for pomp and circumstance. For better or worse, baby boomers, Gen Xers, and some millennials associate the hangwa with the homes of their grandparents during Seollal Day festivities. Looking at consumer behavior, a 2012 South Korean study found that the top motivations for buying a box of hangwa were gift giving and maintaining the traditional image, respectively. The actual act of eating it ranked third.

Although it’s unclear why people prefer to buy – not make – and not necessarily even eat their purchased hangwa, JinJoo Lee, who writes the Kimchimari blog, has a guess. “South Korea has always looked to the West for things, so because of that and through [food] marketing [from the 1960s through the 1980s]I think we’ve lost a lot of good, authentic flavor.” As South Koreans became more and more obsessed with the “flashy, bold taste [of Western-style desserts]”, she explained, “they started to wonder if making these milder flavors [hangwa] was never worth the effort” – or even worth eating.

Despite — or perhaps because of — its complex history, the hangwa are experiencing a quiet renaissance on both sides of the Pacific. Museums, culinary experts and a younger generation of chefs, who educate, advocate and sell the desserts, are making strides in what Kim Gyu-heun describes as “a form of heritage that embodies the spirit of the people”. Pastry chef Eunji Lee, who has served her own renditions at Jungsik Restaurant in Manhattan and is keeping an eye out for the sweet treat’s return, noted that she hopes people will continue to “preserve these beautiful pastries and pieces of the heritage of Korean culture”. The chef added that the chiseled bars of modern-looking gangjeong and minimalist yakgwa (which actually taste great) are year-round menu items at dessert shops in South Korea in hopes of attract the Instagram generation. To her, it doesn’t matter that the treats look like historical replicas; rather that they exist today: “awareness is the most important thing”.

Traditional Korean dessert shops in the United States are more difficult to find, as the hangwa and the art involved lack the traditional recognition associated with groceries sold in Euro-Asian restaurants. But people with a budding interest can go the house route. JinJoo Lee has a fantastic, streamlined recipe for Korean Sesame Tea Cookies, or dasik. She has a traditional dasik press, but promises that “you totally can do it without the fancy mould.” For those interested in a more traditional version, she also blogged about her mother-in-law’s age-old yakgwa recipe.

In the “Korean Instant Pot Cookbook”, authors Nancy Cho and Selina Lee use the device to prepare another labor-intensive festive hangwa, yakbap (also called yakshik). “While I love the art of making things the way they were made 100 years ago, if there’s an easier way to retain flavor without losing authenticity, I’m thrilled,” said Selina Lee.

As long as people remember this ever-changing style of confection, quintessential Korean desserts will remain a staple of Seollal. Traditionally shaped or interpreted with a contemporary take, a respectful bite of any hangwa will taste just as sweet.