According to the chef Judy Joo, the most difficult aspect of eating hotteok is the waiting period. It just takes a few minutes for the hot sugar that has been trapped in the crisp, chewy pancakes to go from molten, burn-your-mouth-off crap to warm, sticky perfection.
During the winter months, she used to go to vendors in Seoul that offered the traditional Korean dessert. “It was misery, standing there in the cold,” she said, despite the sweet fragrance of sugar and cinnamon filling the air around her.
Ms. Joo, a 47-year-old chef and cookbook author, now prepares her own hotteok at her Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side. The batter is made from a combination of bread flour and sweet rice flour, and she stuffs each pancake with a mixture of muscovado and peanuts seasoned with cinnamon, salt, and pepper before frying the plump rounds until they are a bright golden brown.
Hotteok (pronounced halfway between HO-tuck and HO-duck) is available in both sweet and savoury varieties, ranging from mozzarella to matcha, however the cinnamon-and-sugar filling is now the most popular. One of Ms. Joo’s most popular dishes at Jinjuu, the Korean restaurant in London that she owned and operated until 2019, was a hotteok inspired by Snickers bars, with a filling of salted caramel, chocolate ganache, peanut butter, and praline on the inside.
Ms. Joo isn’t the only Korean chef who has dabbled with hotteok techniques. Esther Choi, a chef at Mokbar in New York, stuffs her steamed buns with pork belly. Sammy Pak’s pop-up restaurant, Sammy’s, in Oakland, California, has served a ham and cheese sandwich. Frankseoul, a South Korean cafe company that plans to launch a shop in Frisco, Texas, in 2020, will serve hotteok loaded with Nutella.
Although the meal has seen a lot of innovation, JinJoo Lee, 55, who publishes the Korean-food blog Kimchimari, says it is more nostalgic for people of her age, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, than anything else. Because South Korea was under authoritarian control at the time, for them, it brings back memories of a period when there was minimal outside influence on South Korean cuisine.
Hotteok, on the other hand, is a product of external influences. It was introduced to the United States by Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth century as an adaption of the Chinese word bing. The sweet version gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of American foreign assistance provided to the nation during the Korean War, which included low-cost wheat and sugar. Hotteok was inexpensive to produce and sell, which was advantageous at a time when South Korea’s economy was failing.
Ms. Lee speculated that today’s young Koreans may not have grown up around hotteok. The government imposed harsh restrictions on street sellers during the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, stating that the booths made it more difficult to stroll about the city. Many hotteok food shops have since closed down as a result of the restrictions.
According to her, as those young people have grown into maturity, many have rediscovered hotteok, which is Korean for “hotteok.” “It’s making a return,” says the author.
With the rise in popularity of K-dramas and K-pop, there has been a resurgence in interest in Korean cuisine according to John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. (Members of the Korean pop group BTS recently shared photographs of themselves eating hotteok on social media.) “Both K-pop idols and Korean drama stars are always consuming Korean cuisine,” says the narrator.
As the last dish at Jua, a Korean tasting-menu restaurant in Manhattan, chef Hoyoung Kim prepares hotteok, which is pan-fried to order and glazed with syrup made from muscovado sugar. To demonstrate that a simple meal might be a part of a fine-dining experience, he created this dish.