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Infused your palate with an utterly unique and sumptuous spread of flavors and textures, and give these Korean desserts a try when you’re next in South Korea.
A cuisine renowned for its color, flavor, and creativity, the sweeter side of Korean food offers up a world of mind-boggling fusions and sweet and savory combinations that both tickle the tongue and satisfy the stomach.
Guided by a local writer, let’s delve into the colors, textures, and flavors of Korean desserts through 19 must-try dishes to seek out at restaurants, eateries, and food markets in South Korea.
Must-Try Korean Desserts
1 – 식혜 (Sikhye) – Sweet Rice Drink
Rice fermented in malt water may not sound too appetizing, but you may change your mind after trying Sikhye, a traditional Korean drink, known for its refreshing and sweet taste.
Although generally Sikhye is made only with rice, malt water, and some water, additional ingredients may be added to enhance its beloved flavor. Pumpkins, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, barley, corn, among others, can be added for a little variance.
Aside from helping in digestion, Sikhye is refreshing and cools you down, which is probably why it is so popular at the Jjimjilbang. So if it is extra hot outside, or if you’ve had an extra spicy meal, grab yourself some Sikhye!
2 – 호떡 (Hotteok) – Fried Pancakes with Nuts
Simply put, Hotteok is made by filling a small roll of dough with sugar and other nuts, then baking or frying the dough flat. Hotteok looks like a small flat pancake sandwich, with a rich and delicious nut and syrup filling. Considered a street food, the exact origin of this dish is unknown, but it is thought to be inspired by a type of flat Chinese bread.
The filling has been adapted to cater to Koreans and includes various nuts, sugar, cinnamon, among other ingredients. The batter is usually sticky, with comparisons to tteok (Korean rice cake), and it is cooked on a flat griddle, pressed flat in the process.
Since it is a hot dessert and a street food, it is popular when winter approaches. But cafes also serve them with an ice cream scoop on top, so it can be enjoyed all year round!
3 – 달고나 (Dalgona) – Caramel Candy
Dalgona is a type of caramel, made by heating sugar with a little baking soda. A renowned street food, back in the 1970s, when it first gained popularity, there wasn’t an official name for it, so different regions had different names for this sweet street food.
The term “Dalgona,” which may have derived from the word “sweet” (달다, dalda) was used in the Metropolitan areas, and in time spread to become the name that it is known as today.
In the early 2000s, there were even DIY machines that you could make Dalgona with. The machine would dispense a certain amount of sugar, and came equipped with a heating area and a cooling area. Today, DIY home kits are sold for that iconic Dalgona experience from the comfort of your own home.
4 – 수정과 (Sujeonggwa) – Cinnamon Drink
Sujeonggwa is a traditional Korean drink of ginger and cinnamon, with sugar or honey added for that sweet taste. Sujeonggwa is reddish-brown in color and has a tea-like consistency. It is served cold and can be garnished with Gotgam (dried persimmon) and/or nuts (pine nuts to be specific).
Records of Sujeonggwa can be found in a book of royal celebrations, 수작의궤 (Sujakeuigwe), which dates back to 1765. This confirms the long history of Sujeonggwa as a traditional Korean drink.
Being a delicacy, in the past, it was prepared for new year’s celebrations. Today, however, it can be enjoyed all year round, and there is even a canned version, making it that much easier to purchase and drink this beloved beverage.
5 – 화채 (Hwachae) – Fruit Punch
Hwachae is a refreshing drink, packed with fruits and served cold, that is popular during summertime. Records of Hwachae can be found as early as 1829 (진찬의궤, Jinchan Uigwe), and at this time, since ice was not readily available, people would dunk the fruits in river water to keep them cool. During winter, when fresh fruits were scarce, they would make the punch with dried fruit as a substitute.
These days, Hwachae is commonly paired with watermelon, which is a popular fruit during the summer season. The watermelon is skinned, and the outer layer is used as a bowl to drink Hwachae from.
You can add a wide range of fruit to Hwachae, and dunk them in soda, milk, or other drinks, and even add ice, sugar, honey, or condensed milk to make your Hwachae. The possibilities are endless!
6 – 엿 (Yeot) – Korean Taffy
Yeot is actually a general term for sweets made from rice, corn, sweet potatoes, and other ingredients steamed with mixed grains. The ingredients are fermented in malt water and drained before the water is boiled until it becomes slightly sticky.
If the Yeot is boiled until it reaches a syrup-like liquid-state, it is known as 물엿 (Mul-yeot, literally “water-yeot”). If it is boiled to a thicker consistency, it is called 조청 (Jocheong, which is used like a sweet dip or as honey), and if it is cooled to harden, it becomes 갱엿 (Gaeng-yeot).
If making Gaeng-yeot, the candy is stretched and aired, becoming the solid form of Yeot, which so many Koreans enjoy as a sweet snack at all times of the day.
7 – 곶감 (Gotgam) – Dried Persimmons
Simple and straight to the point, Gotgam is dried persimmon. Fresh persimmons are full of moisture and can go bad relatively quickly, but dried as Gotgam, this dish can be enjoyed as a sweet treat any time of the year. Gotgam is usually covered with a type of white dust, formed from dried sugar or glucose.
To make Gotgam, unripe persimmons are peeled and hung in a well-ventilated place that receives a lot of sunlight. When the persimmons are dried with about 1/3 of the moisture still intact, they can be deseeded (although optional), then completely dried in an enclosed area. In fact, the whole process can take up to five months to get the perfect Gotgam.
Gotgam is commonly served at special celebrations, such as Korean weddings or festivals. Since it is a naturally preserved good, it is considered to be a treat, and it is even given out as presents to special guests.
8 – 약식 (Yaksik) or 약밥 (Yakbap) – Sweet Rice Cake
Yaksik or Yakbap is a type of Korean rice cake, wherein sticky rice mixed with chestnuts, Jujube fruit, pine nuts, and is seasoned with sesame oil, honey or brown sugar, soy sauce, and cinnamon.
Unlike most other types of Korean rice cake, the rice is not made into a paste, and the grain is intact. The general color of Yaksik is brown due to the seasoning.
It is a seasonal dish which is eaten during Daeboreum (정월 대보름), which celebrates the first full moon of the lunar new year. Today, you can find it premade, and sold in portions in various rice cake shops, enjoyed as a snack.
9 – 다식 (Dasik) – Pressed Sweet Grain-Based Batter
Dasik is a rich snack that is usually eaten with tea. It consists of a mixture of grains, nuts, medicinal herbs, and starch, that is made into a batter with the addition of rice flour and honey. The batter is then pressed in a Dasik mold and served.
Dasik is molded into many different shapes and styles, and this delightful dessert gives locals and tourists alike an insight into the beauty of traditional Korean design.
Since the batter is made with honey, it has a strong, sweet flavor, which makes it a perfect pairing for any form of hot tea. Offset with the earthy flavor from the grains, Dasik is an intriguing sweet treat, with a unique sweet and savory flavor profile.
10 – 경단 (Gyeongdan) – Small Rice Cake Ball
Gyeongdan is a type of Korean rice cake, made from a batter of rice flour or broom corn flour and shaped into bite-size balls. These are then boiled in hot water, and once cooked rolled on powdered grains, honey, or mul-yeot (malt water syrup).
Gyeongdan is similar to Japanese Dang, with the main difference being that Dango is served on a stick and covered in seasoning, while Gyeongdan is rolled into the grains and/or seasoning.
Depending on what Gyeongdan is covered in, it can be given specific names, such as bean power Gyeongdan, pine nut Gyeongdan, sweet potato Gyeongdan, and many other names.
11 – 엿강정 (Yeot-Gangjeong) – Molded Fried Grains
Yeot-Gangjeong is a type of Korean snack, similar to a candy bar, consisting of nuts, seeds, beans, and puffed grains, among other ingredients. The grains are toasted or fried, and are mixed will mul-yeot (malt water syrup) to allow the mixture to stick together. From there, the grains are cut into bars to be wrapped.
This treat is usually eaten during holidays or at celebratory feasts. In modern times, they are not made at home, but are given as gifts when visiting family members during holidays.
12 – 약과 (Yakgwa) – Deep-Fried Sweetened Batter
Yakgwa is a type of traditional Korean cookie, wherein a batter of fine flour, seasoned with a little sesame oil, is mixed with honey and some liquor. The mixture is then pressed in a mold of a traditional Korean design, before being deep-fried in oil.
Yakgwa has existed since the Goryeo Dynasty (founded in 918, and became Korea in 1392, currently parts of North and South Korea), and is also commonly offered to the ancestors during Jesa, a memorial ceremony held during holidays or the anniversary of the ancestor’s death.
Yakgwa has a rich, dark brown color, due to the sesame oil, honey, and deep-frying process, and is renowned for its soft, chewy texture.
13 – 증편 (Jeungpyeon) – Fluffy Rice Cake
Jeungpyeon, also informally known as Sultteok, is a type of rice cake wherein rice flour is mixed with makgeolli (Korean rice wine). The batter is first fermented, then topped with chestnuts, jujube fruit, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and edible flower, and steamed until fully cooked.
It is known to have a slightly pungent smell due to the use of makgeolli, and its taste is slightly sour due to the fermenting process.
Jeungpyeon is actually a summer staple, as the summer heat helps in the fermenting process. Its texture, due to the makgeolli, is very light and fluffy, and it has a similar consistency to that of a sponge cake.
14 – 유과 (Yugwa) – Rice Batter Puffs Coated in Honey
Yugwa is a type of traditional Korean snack. It is made from rice flour and makgeolli (rice wine), mixed and rolled into a thin batter and dried for several days to become light and crispy.
Once fully dried, the Yugaw batter is deep-fried, then covered in a malt-water syrup known as Jocheong. Yugwa is sticky due to the use of syrup, hence it is rolled in grains or puffed rice, which will line its exterior.
Due to the makgeolli’s fermentation, the fried Yugwa has a light and crunchy texture, while the Jocheong adds a chewy and sticky consistency.
Yugwa traditionally was a snack enjoyed by royalty. With its light, crunchy bite, sweet caramelized syrup, and savory, nutty flavor, it’s not difficult to understand why after your first bite!
15 – 정과 (Jeonggwa) – Candied Fruit/Roots/Seeds
Jeonggwa is candied fruit, made from medicinal root crops, such as ginseng, ginger, and balloon flower root, topped with sugar.
Sugar traditionally was rare in Korea, so Jeonggwa was considered a delicacy, which only the noble class could enjoy up until the 20th and 21st centuries. Ginseng Jeonggwa, in particular, was and still is considered to be a very luxurious sweet treat.
Since Jeonggwa can be made from various fruits, it can have a wide variety of colors and fruity flavors. The candying process also means Jeonggwa can be preserved for a long time, making it an ideal food to store throughout the year.
Today, medicinal root crops, which are generally bitter, are enjoyed as Jeonggwa and given to children to improve their health.
16 – 양갱 (Yanggaeng) – Sweet Red Bean Jelly
Yanggaeng is a modern Korean snack, closely connected to Japanese Wagashi. Korean Yanggaeng is made from red beans or chestnuts, agar, and sugar. The ingredients are powdered, mixed together, placed in a mold, and steamed. Finally, the steamed mixture is chilled to a jelly-like consistency.
Classic Yanggaeng is made from red beans, hence is renowned for its reddish-brown color, but Yanggaeng made with chestnut powder, and a lighter brown in color, is also a popular version of this sweet jelly.
17 – 맛탕 (Mattang) – Deep Fried Sweet Potatoes
Inspired by the Chinese dish Ba Si, Korean Mattang is a scrumptious dish of candied sweet potatoes. Ba Si and Mattang are similar in that both consist of sweet potatoes covered in syrup, creating a candied potato that has a crunchy bite and a deliciously soft center.
In making Ba Si, the sugar is mixed with the oil when the sweet potatoes are cooked. But in making Mattang, the sweet potatoes are cooked or fried first, then lightly sautéed with syrup. Mattang is commonly topped with sesame seeds, and can be enjoyed as a snack, on its own, or even as a side dish to a main meal.
18 – 빙수 (Bingsu) – Shaved Ice Dessert with Toppings
A perfect dessert for hot summer days, Bingsu is a decadent dish of shaved ice, topped with syrup, red beans, fruits, rice cakes, and plenty of other sweet ingredients.
It is believed the dish was invented by scholars during the Joseon Dynasty (founded in 1392), who were the first to shave mounds of ice and top the ice with various fruits, initially creating a type of Hwachae (as mentioned above). From there, through the ages, Bingsu continued to evolve and grow in popularity.
The classic Korean Bingsu is widely considered to be Pat-Bingsu (red bean Bingsu). It is a dish of shaved ice, topped with sweet red bean paste, finished with sugar or milk.
These days, Bingsu is an iconic Korean dessert. Throughout Korea, there are even franchise shops that specialize solely in Bingsu, and you can find an incredible array of toppings and flavors, from red beans to tropical fruits, rice cake to even cheesecake!
19 – 미숫가루 (Misu Garu) – Grain Powder Drink
Misu Garu literally means ‘powder drink’, and traditionally contains up to 10 different grains that are steamed, dried, and finally powdered. The grains used in this beverage vary from sticky rice, barley, soybeans, yulmu (Job’s tears), along with many others.
To make Misu Garu, you simply add water or milk to the powdered mixture, then stir to create the drink. For a sweeter taste, you can add sugar, honey, or condensed milk to the mix.
Because it is full of grain powder, Misu Garu has a thick consistency. It is a beverage high in protein and low in calories, so it is a good substitute for a quick breakfast, and can even work as a protein shake.
Korean Desserts Summary
Scrumptious, colorful, and fusing flavors in a mind-blowing way, Korean desserts truly pull out all the stops when it comes to decadence, taste, and creativity.
During any visit to South Korea, keep your eyes peeled for these beautiful desserts. Try and many as you can, savor their flavors, and delve as much as you can into the vast world of Korean food: you will not be disappointed!
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Author: Eun Hae Oh is a bilingual English-Korean translator, writer, and voice actor, from Incheon City, South Korea. A passionate foodie, Eun is eager to share more about authentic Korean food through her writing.
Images licensed via Shutterstock