When chef Junghyun Park was a kid, his cousin in Seoul brought over a fresh honeycomb.
Mr. Park’s mother hoarded it, only sharing it with those who were ill, since fresh honey was highly valued in South Korea for its purported medicinal benefits. When combined with some ginger and hot water, honey makes a delicious cup of tea.
Among historic Korean desserts, the honey cookie yakgwa, which is deep-fried and then soaked in syrup, may be the best example of honey’s benefits. Yakgwa, which comes from the words “yak” for medicine and “gwa” for confection, is more than just a delicious treat. It conveys the tale of Korea’s respect for history and hope for the future, bridging generations and telling a universal narrative.
Savoured in South Korea and worldwide since the Goryeo period (918-1392), these sweets have recently had a renaissance in popularity owing in part to videos on YouTube and TikTok and Korean dramas like the Netflix series “Alchemy of Souls.”
Young Koreans who identify as “halmaenials” (a combination of the terms “halmoni,” meaning grandmother, and millennial) are at the forefront of this new preoccupation with the past in South Korea’s “Generation MZ” (a mix of millennials and Gen Zers). This generation of baby boomers has given the yakgwa culinary tradition and industry a much-needed boost.
There are a number of new boutique enterprises in South Korea offering yakgwa in a variety of flavours beyond the traditional ginger-honey, including lavender, chocolate, and cookies & cream.
Demand has prompted an online ticketing system called “yakketing,” via which customers of small companies can put orders for yakgwa, which may be harder to get than a table at Tatiana at Lincoln Centre. In Korea, stores often experience 60-second sellouts.
The eager pursuit of yakgwa is not new in Korea. Since the wheat, honey, and sesame oil used to make yakgwa were in high demand, the kings of Korea’s Goryeo dynasty outlawed their production and consumption.
Many Korean families still observe the ancient tradition of serving yakgwa only on festive occasions like Chuseok, Seollal, birthdays, and the four major milestones of adulthood, marriage, death, and the veneration of the dead (gwan, hon, sang, je).
The message is universal: you can’t enjoy life’s finest moments until you’ve reached adulthood.
After Hyaeweol Choi’s mother passed away in 2012, she saw firsthand the significance of coming together during one of life’s most poignant moments: the burial. According to Dr. Choi, a gender historian and professor of Korean studies at the University of Iowa, significant relationships are created during funerals between relatives, both alive and deceased, who had otherwise been “scattered over time.”
A year later, Dr. Choi carried out the jesa ceremony, the fourth rite of passage, for her mother. This ceremony entails preparing a lavish feast for the departed, complete with candles and a big table.
Dr. Choi’s mother was an expert in Korean ceremonial dishes like yakgwa and their proper presentation. Dr. Choi is thrilled by the widespread popularity of the cookie among young people who value the heritage enough to give it a modern twist.
Aside from these traditional celebrations, yakgwa is now often eaten as a snack after school or a weeknight dessert topped with vanilla ice cream. Cho Dang Gol, a popular Korean restaurant in Manhattan, provides complimentary packets of tasty little yakgwa, similar to soft mints or sticks of gum, with the bill.
Even still, handmade yakgwa almost always tastes better than store-bought. Because of the frying process used to make yakgwa, the oil in mass-produced packaged varieties might develop rancid, preparing the cookies from scratch is a worthwhile endeavour. When the cookie is at its peak, the sticky, amber syrup should gently trickle out, coating your fingers in honey like Winnie the Pooh’s paw.
Flour, sesame oil, soju, honey, and spices come together in this peculiar dough. The ground ginger and cinnamon in my yakgwa are reminiscent of the sweet and spicy notes in traditional Korean dishes like sujeonggwa, a refreshing cinnamon punch, and yaksik, a delicious sweetened rice with chestnuts, pine nuts, and jujubes (a sort of red date).
The fried cookies are dipped in jocheong, a Korean brown rice syrup that is not too sweet and is flavoured with fresh ginger and a touch of honey.
The frying process is similar to baking in many respects; instead of using a baking sheet, you’ll be working with a packed pan of sizzling oil and rounds of dough. They expand ever-so-slightly, exposing their tiers. It takes time for a crunchy cookie to absorb the gingery syrup, but it’s worth it. Time is needed to enjoy life’s finer treats.
Yakgwa may be found in a wide variety of forms, with the most frequent being the fluted flower shape. A recipe for a crispier, flakier variety of yakgwa in the shape of rectangles may be found in “The Korean Cookbook,” penned by Mr. Park, the chef who drinks honey like medication, and the researcher and chef Jungyoon Choi. Mr. Park has described the city of Kaesong in North Korea as a “hidden gem of Korean cuisine,” and this style is representative of that city’s rich culinary culture.