Whether I’m in Seoul or not, I’m usually craving a Korean snack. This might be infamous honey butter chips or adorable banana milk, but oftentimes it’s something with a bit more history. Koreans have enjoyed something to munch on since ancient times and now wear their snack badge with honor through the thousands of convenience stores you can find across the country. We’re here to introduce you to our top five traditional Korean snacks and where you can try them in Seoul.
1. Honey Cookies aka Yakgwa | 약과
Yakgwa is a deep-fried honey cookie with both a soft and tough texture. Its taste reminds me of a glazed donut without the flaking sugar powder. As someone who strongly dislikes donuts, I’m not a fan of this particular Korean sweet. You might be wondering: why start the list with it then? That’s because yakgwa is massively popular among locals and tourists alike, making me the odd one out.
The history of yakgwa stretches back to the Silla Dynasty (668- 935) when it was used in Buddhist rites as an offering. In the Goryeo Dynasty (935 – 1392), it was a popular snack among wealthier classes due to the expense of honey. Yakgwa continued to exist this way until modern times, when the dessert underwent mass production and commercialization.
The cookie’s shape was often flowers or animals, but as its popularity grew in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the dough was packed flat. Bats, butterflies, and pine trees -symbols of longevity – were among the most popular images seen on yakgwa. Yakgwa’s appearance went through many variations as it became an important staple at ancestral rites. You could spot yakgwa spheres, cubes, and eventually its current form: a round flower.
Yakgwa can be found nearly everywhere, including your neighborhood convenience store. But to really enjoy this Korean snack, one should experience it in a Hanok cafe. Pair tradition with tradition, know what I mean? There are many Hanok cafes in Insadong offering yakgwa, but we recommend the quiet courtyards of Ibagu and Insadong Teahouse or the two-story hanok, Mokhyang. All cafes have been in the neighborhood for many years and boast a large menu of traditional sweets.
2. Honeycomb Candy aka Dalgona | 달고나
Let’s get one thing straight: dalgona is not a coffee flavor. Due to the 2020 trend of ‘Dalgona’ coffee, many people have been mistaken about what this word actually means. Dalgona is a honeycomb-like candy that was traditionally sold on the streets of Korea, often bearing childhood shapes and images. The term ‘dalgona coffee’ came about because a celebrity said the taste reminded him of the honeycomb. There: now you know more than your friends. Thanks to Squid Game, this confusion seems to be (mostly) cleared up.
Dalgona is a traditional sweet, but not one that stretches back to the ancient dynasties of the peninsula. Dalgona made its first appearance in the 1960s and became a popular street food staple in the following decades. Depending on where you lived, this Korean snack went by several names: ttigi, gukja, jjokja, orittigi, ttong-gwaja, ttegia and of course… dalgona. With the rise of social media, ‘dalgona’ stuck due to its origin in the heavily populated Gyeonggi-do.
Cha Cafe in Seongsu-dong offers dalgona lattes, milk teas, scones, cakes, and more. It was started as a passion project by its creator Kenny Hong; you can read our full interview with him here. Be careful not to get confused with Cha’s other branches, as other locations focus on different traditional flavors, and dalgona may not be on the menu.
3. Pine Rice Cakes aka Songpyeon | 송편
If you’re familiar with Chuseok, aka Korean Thanksgiving, then you wouldn’t be surprised to see songpyeon make our list. These delicious and colorful rice cakes can be purchased from rice cake houses all year round, but are made in abundance during the autumn months.
Ttok (떡), rice cake, is a staple food that has been around since the ancient kingdoms. There are so many kinds of rice cakes that could have made this list, but I find songpyeon to be the tastiest. The earliest records of songpyeon date back to the Goryeo Dynasty. At this time, they were used to thank ancestors for a bountiful harvest in the form of an offering. This tradition has amazingly survived until today; many families set out songpyeon alongside fresh fruit and taro, which represent the food of heaven, earth, and underground, respectively.
Songpyeon were also given as gifts with the belief that bad luck could be avoided when one ate these rice cakes. This belief is rooted in the dessert’s moon shape, as the moon was a symbol of wishes. This also leads some Koreans to utter their wishes while making songpyeon. Another Korean anecdote states that the person who makes the most beautiful songpyeon will meet a good partner or give birth to a healthy child. I’m no avid believer in superstitions, but I can foresee that all the songpyeon will end up in my tummy.
Songpyeon are most commonly green, white, pink, yellow or purple. The inside filling can range from soybeans, jujubes, chestnuts, read beans, and dates. Wondering how pine needles come into play? This is because the rice cakes are steamed over pine needles for an incredible fragrance and unique flavoring.
To try songpyeon, you can visit nearly any ttok house in Korea. If you’re on an aesthetic hunt, then you must check out the songpyeon by Alkong Ttokkong and Nullicake. There are also tea servings of songpyeon traditionally offered by Korea House, but you may want to give them a call first to see if they have a different seasonal menu.
4. Seaweed Cookies aka Kim Jeonbyeong | 김전병
This might be a surprise to many of you. Some of you might have never even seen these seaweed cookies before. That’s because these are almost always associated with Korean grandparents and are seldom served in younger, trendier places. You can usually buy them off the back of a truck or in a market for a ridiculously cheap price. They also tend to be sold in a huge stock, perhaps 20 sheets of these cookies, which makes me wonder what people are using them for! If they’re that popular, why can’t I see them everywhere? This is (perhaps) my absolute favorite Korean snack, as they remind me of a fortune cookie albeit with a salty seaweed kick.
Truthfully, it was hard for me to find much history on these cookies. You can find them in rolls, flat plates, or as large triangles. Due to their popularity among the older generations of Koreans, I suspect they stretch back to Japanese occupation times or mid-century Korea. If you happen to be an expert on Korean seaweed cookies, hit me up.
To enjoy this delicious Korean snack outside of a market try Taegukdang, the oldest bakery in Seoul, or stop by the famous Kim Yonggi Snack House for a huge selection of traditional cookies in various flavors.
5. Fish Bread aka Bungeo-ppang | 붕어빵
It wouldn’t be a Korean snack list without this iconic Korean street food. I almost left it off of my list due to the sheer popularity of this sweet bread, but in the end, I succame to its hypnotic power. If you haven’t had bungeo-ppang before, a fish-shaped bread with red bean filling, then have you really lived?
We’ve already covered bungeo-ppang in our Korean winter street food article, but let’s take some time to learn a bit of history. This bread came to Korea from Japan in the 1930s under colonization. However, it developed its own style and texture based on European waffles and Eastern dumplings. While the Japanese version is a sea bream fish, the Korean bread is shaped like a carp. With the end of colonization drawing near and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, this delicious bread was almost forgotten to the pages of Korean history. There was little money to spare on such a mouth-watering luxury, despite its affordable cost. The fish was able to find its fins again in the 1990s, where it swam to extreme popularity. Today, it’s a common street food, and even has a vanilla ice cream version for the summer months.
This little fish is so beloved that a group of bungeo-ppang enthusiasts have created a map locating all of the best places to buy their favorite Korean snack. You can check it out here. If you’re looking for a sit-down option, visit Boongmericano in Seodaemun-gu.