WITH THE drop in temperature, you become conscious of the chills running through your body. You have been out for too long, and you desperately wish to warm your icy body. Your eyes catch steam rising to the skies and a delectable aroma beckons you to follow. A small but cozy stall awaits you, and the owner gives you a welcoming smile. The booth is filled with foods that invite you to have a taste, and the first bite sends bliss your way. Winter has finally arrived and so has the plethora of street foods unique to this season. These winter treats have become a familiar staple of Korean culture, but several regions have added some unique flairs to the usual recipe. In what ways have they changed your typical street foods to match their cultural roots?
Eo-muk / Mul-tteok
One of the most common foods seen in almost every food market in Korea, eo-muk, or fish-cake, is a processed food product made from ground white fish and potato starch. It comes in various shapes and sizes, such as flat rectangles and long cylinders, and are often accompanied with a rich broth. Fish-cakes were first introduced to Korea during its colonization by Japan, but they became particularly prominent in the Busan region during the Korean War.
When South Korean civilians fled to the southern edge of the peninsula, many took shelter in Busan, a port city that was perfect for producing fish-cake. From this historic period came the unique regional product, the Busan eo-muk. Due to its proximity to the ocean, Busan eo-muk contains higher percentages of fish ingredients, making the product stand out from those of other regions. As such, eo-muk brands have taken up the term “Busan eo-muk” to promote their products, a testament to the highly esteemed quality of Busan’s fish-cakes. Even fish-cake bakeries have opened in this city: similar to bread bakeries, these shops display various different kinds of eo-muk and some shops have even created cafés for people to enjoy coffee with their gourmet variety of fish-cakes.
The standard way to serve eo-muk is to take the thin, rectangular product and put it through a skewer while folding the layers. The product is then dipped into a hot broth, whose rich flavor is made from brewing radish, dried anchovies, and dried kelp. Street stalls normally serve eo-muk with a free cup of this flavorful, steaming broth. After devouring the fish-cake, people can cup the hot drink in their hands and melt their icicle body.
However, the street food stalls in Busan have more to offer when it comes to fish-cakes on a stick. The usual fish-cake is replaced with ga-rae-tteok* and dipped in the eo-muk broth. The rice-cake then soaks in the rich flavors and is served skewered. This food is dubbed mul-tteok, or water rice-cake. Because it absorbs the broth, it is very large, and in this procedure, it obtains a very chewy texture. When bitten into, it lengthens like a string of cheese, and leaves a slight after-taste of the eo-muk broth. Mul-tteok may look eccentric at first glance, but it is definitely worth a taste.
Bung-eo-ppang / Sweet potato bung-eo-ppang
There is nothing more violently fun than to bite a fish’s head off and let it spill out its innards of sweet red bean paste. Bung-eo-ppang, literally translated as carp bread, is an iconic street food to grace the winter season. This bizarre-looking bread has its origins in the Japanese occupation of South Korea in the 1930s. It was derived from Japan’s taiyaki, or sea-bream bread, but it has come a long way from being merely an imitation of another country’s food. It has been fully integrated into the Korean culture, its history setting it apart from its Japanese roots.
During one of Korea’s worst economic crises in 1997, unemployment swept the nation, leaving many with little to no capital to sustain their livelihoods. The newly unemployed resorted to creating bung-eo-ppang shops with what little money they had left, and the affordable prices made it a staple winter comfort food.
Three main components of the bung-eo-ppang are its fluffy bread, the filling inside the confectionary, and its iconic carp shape. The batter is poured onto a specially-shaped waffle iron, the mold of which is made to look like a carp. The fillings are then added across the body and tail; the most typical filling is red bean paste, which give the food more texture. Regardless of the part of the carp you first bite into, you will taste the delectable filling fusing with its warm, crispy exterior.
In the present day, there is a constant rise and fall of food trends, and the bung-eo-ppang has also transformed to keep up with the times. Sweet potatoes have been reigning as one of the top food crazes in Seoul, and appropriately, a bung-eo-ppang that features both sweet potato paste and batter has been invented. Known as the purple sweet potato carp bread, this new take on the bung-eo-ppang elevates the common treat in terms of its taste and texture. The bread is fluffier than that of the original and the filling immediately reminds you of the actual vegetable in paste form. Though the venues that sell this unconventional creation are sparse, this novel type of bung-eo-ppang continues to stir immense hype on social media.
Ho du gwa ja / Tangerine ha reu bang ppang
Chunky yet funky, this next street food is small and rich with a flavorful punch. Ho du gwa ja, or walnut-cake, is a type of Korean confection that originates from the Cheonan region. Cheonan’s ideal conditions for the cultivation of walnuts prompted a married couple in the city to begin a walnut-cake business. Through experimentation, they developed the confection based on the techniques of han-gwa** and eventually produced the modern day ho du gwa ja. Since then, this delectable treat has spread all over the streets of Korea and continues to lure the passerby on cold, chilly days.
Much like bung-eo-ppang, ho du gwa ja takes the shape of its namesake and looks like a walnut from the outside. Using a waffle-iron with a mold designed to take the shape of a walnut, the bread is accented with various walnut-like bumps and dips, and even has a rim across the sphere to mimic the shell’s opening. Inside, there are two fillings: a hefty amount of red bean paste and chunks of walnut that create a silky yet crunchy texture. The process of making ho du gwa ja is extremely similar to that of the bung-eo-ppang. Most stalls also accompany the walnut-cake with another variation of the treat: the peanut-cake, which, as its name suggests, is made with peanuts.
Jeju Island has taken the concept of these exclusively-shaped confectionaries as inspiration to create its own cultural winter treat. Among the various aspects of Jeju’s unique culture, there are two iconic symbols that embody this region, which are the hal-la-bong*** and the dol ha reu bang****. Accordingly, Jeju has mashed these culturally symbolic pieces into a Korean sweet known as the tangerine ha reu bang ppang. The confectionary takes the shape of its namesake with a cuter, smaller version of the famous rock statue, and inside is a nectarous tangerine filling that has a tangy taste when it hits the tip of the tongue. This quirky alternative has been sold as another type of souvenir among the various other rock statue and tangerine products, intriguing both Koreans and international tourists. Only Jeju Island, a region rich with cultural symbols, has the capability of inventing a tasty treat like this one.
* * *
A famous proverb once stated, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” But men, women, children and the elderly alike soften at the sight of delicious food on the street. Each winter delicacy has a deep history that makes it so dear in the community, and there is not a moment more magical than having a comfort food help you forget the freezing cold with its heart-warming taste. Each region can show its unique history and culture with the various twists on the common street foods that we encounter during the chilly season, but stay warned: they will not be there for the entire year. It is best to get a taste before the street vendors follow the seasonal cycle of snacks and change their specialty dishes.
*Ga-rae-tteok: Long, white, cylindrical rice-cake made with non-glutinous rice
**Han-gwa: Traditional Korean confectionaries
***Hal-la-bong: A large tangerine; the main characteristic is a large bump on its top
****Dol ha reu bang: Large rock statues commonly seen in Jeju Island, symbolizing protection and fertility from the gods; Translated as “stone grandfather,” these statues are characterized by their bulging eyes, large nose, and placement of hands.