▲Gaon-gil(top), Mihong(bottom) / Café Bora
Sweet Adventures for Korean Desserts
Walk around the basement food hall of any large Korean department store, and it’s hard not to stop at the sight of all of the sweet and tempting treats showcased proudly in their vibrant displays. At first glance, with all of the whipped-up clouds of cream and icing, many of the available desserts look very similar to those offered elsewhere around the world. A closer look, however, reveals a distinctly Korean sweet tooth that is faithful to local tastes and preferences, yet diverse and ever-evolving.
Modern-day Korean desserts represent a fusion of various ingredients, textures, flavors, and culinary techniques. Perhaps most familiar would be the incorporation of locally preferred ingredients into baked goods like cakes and pastries, such as sweet potato, squash, chestnuts, or black sesame. Rice is increasingly being used in baking as an alternative to flour to create treats like injulmi bread (inspired by a traditional tteok, or rice cake, coated with bean flour) or rice castella.
Creativity in presentation and packaging is another way that Korean desserts are capturing the attention of consumers. Flower tteok cakes or cupcakes, for example, are becoming an increasingly popular choice for birthdays and other special events. These cakes look the same as any other cakes or cupcakes intended for special occasions, but are made with a tteok base and topped off with exquisite flowers made not out of frosted cream but of anggeum (a sweetened bean paste). It’s quite a delight to see a bouquet of bright roses and peonies blooming on a bed of soft tteok. This lovely presentation is accompanied by a taste that is described as soft and not too sweet, which is often a Korean preference when it comes to desserts. These cakes can be custom designed and take great care to prepare, so it’s highly recommended that they be ordered in advance from a specialty shop.
There is one very cool dessert that is a winner when it comes to inventive ingredients, flavors, and presentation. Bingsu, which is essentially shaved ice with sweet toppings, has earned its place as a top dessert choice in Korea by appealing to diverse preferences. As bingsu makers constantly try to outdo each other, there are a multitude of bingsu options emerging each year, with endless new combinations of flavors and ingredients. Simple but refined versions of pat bingsu (red bean bingsu), a classic bingsu stronghold, will always remain popular. Decadent toppings like caramel, chocolate and cake, piled high or drizzled over a tempting bowl of shaved ice, would more than satisfy any afternoon sugar craving. Strawberry and mango bingsu are now well established favorites with their own fandom, and other unique fruit variations are served up with flair—in a whole melon or pineapple, for example.
The fusion of traditional, nostalgic, modern, and innovative elements will be essential in the continued evolution of Korean desserts, and the adventures ahead for dessert lovers look promisingly sweet.
Written by Rosa Kim