Written by Cho Namhee
Winter is finally here. The cold breeze summons street vendors of hot foods to the streets, and they become a warm winter shelter. Hot foods such as fish sticks, hotteok (호떡, sugar-filled pancakes), and bungeo-ppang (붕어빵, fish-shaped pastries) are the most popular street foods sought by passers-by, and they are easily recognizable. However, dalgona (달고나), Korean-style honeycomb toffees, are perhaps less known to the expats in Korea. The unique vendors of dalgona present not only an eye-catching scene but also give you entertainment.
The origin of this Korean sweet is uncertain; however, it is presumed to have originated in Busan in the 1960s. Unlike the original toffees from the United Kingdom and the West, the recipe of the Korean confectionery is very simple. Put either a spoonful of sugar or a block of glucose on a metal ladle, and melt and stir. When the liquid turns sticky and yellow, a pinch of baking soda or sodium bicarbonate makes it rise. Then put the puffed up sugar and soda on a plate to let it cool. It can then be flattened to stamp out different shapes. This quick, simple recipe makes it easy to make dalgona at home, and it provides entertainment when bought from vendors.
Back in the 1970s to 1990s, there were dalgona vendors who sold pieces of the sweet with a fun challenge for 50 to 100 won. Heart shapes, star shapes, and many other shapes were impressed on the round, flat toffee cakes with a cookie-cutter-like utensil. Vendors challenged their young customers to trim away the toffee outside the impressed image using only a pin in the depression – without damaging the image! As a reward for successful trimming, the consumer received a free candy or other reward such as prize money or a gift, depending on the region. In addition to the rewards, the fun part was that you got to eat the trimmed-away parts as you went. At first, the task may not sound too challenging; however, cold hands and cold weather rapidly cooling the toffee could make the task quite difficult. This fun challenge has traditionally gathered people under beach umbrellas as they shared joy and competition together around this special treat.
In the past, when gas stoves were still uncommon, vendors had to heat their ladles over coal briquettes. From the 1980s, dalgona slowly faded away for such reasons as low quality and unsanitary production. Of course, the candy is also a far cry from a healthy snack as it contains 99 percent sugar. These days, vendors still sometimes appear around parks and tourist attractions, using the retro aspect of the snack as a selling point. The advancement of technology has made automated dalgona-making machines possible, and these can also be found in front of stationery stores. You may also find the sweet treat on the streets of Chungjang-ro and Geumnam-ro. Visit one of these vendors (now becoming fewer and fewer) this winter to experience the treat with which Koreans entertained themselves in those leaner days of yesteryear.
Cho Namhee currently studies communication at Chonnam National University.