You Are What You Snack: Korea

Category: Culture

You may remember our post the start of the year on how snack food manufacturers appeal to global markets. Today, we look at snacks in one country in particular: Korea. 

Snacking harkens back to the days before farming, when every person foraged for food, finding a little here and a little there to satisfy hunger. Those good old days are still with us. The popular Korean practice of sourcing “wild” edibles, whether plants, insects or herbs, in situ is a popular past-time, especially the hunt for the oft-maligned dandelion. Harvesting low-hanging fruit and other edibles isn’t universally appreciated in the West, however. Some locavores share secret maps of edible neighborhood landscapes, such as in San Francisco Los Angeles, and New York City (although park rangers there aren’t too thrilled with the idea).

Every culture has its own snack palate. Whether available by the scoopful from a street vendor or packed in plastic with graphics screaming and vying for attention on market shelves, popular snack foods are based on recognizable, always seasonable foodstuffs.

Rice is the most popular basis for a snack, with the crust at the bottom of the pot being the easiest to claim as a treat. (Traditionally it was the rice portion of the adult women of the house who reserved the fluffy portions to growing children and “working” husband.) Puffy rice cakes the size of small pizzas are often hawked in parks on the weekends for snacks. Rice is also baked with a coating of sweet sake and soy sauce, chili, horseradish, sesame seeds and fish flakes, or turned into chewy treats and coated with various seasonings (as pictured above). Wheat based cookies have also become popular snacks, especially those flavored with ginger.

Sweet and white potatoes, adzuki and soy beans, peas, corn, pumpkin, peas, chestnuts and peanuts that have been roasted or fried, salted or sugared or both are readily available in bulk and packaged versions. Snack bounty from the sea includes dried and/or fried seaweed and cuttlefish “jerky”. Insects, including grubs, bees and grasshoppers make perfect treats with alcoholic beverages or tea.

As refined sugar had been expensive and scarce in the early to middle 20th Century due to the tumultuous regional political and socio-economic realities, it’s now in full force in candy and chewing gum (melon, grape, lychee, Asian pear, banana) as well as sweet bean, green tea, ginseng and coffee flavors. Fresh sweet potatoes and chestnuts freshly roasted over a charcoal stove are frequently sold from sidewalk vendors in the winter. Chocolate brands, such as Korea’s Lotte, Japan’s Meiji, Belgium’s Guylian, USA’s Kraft and Mars and Switzerland’s Nestle, have a foothold but were slow to gain in popularity, not only due the cost, but also because the lack of dairy in the typical Asian diet.

Perhaps the most “outlandish” sweet delicacy — certainly by American standards — is Bing-Su, a popular combination among youth in East and Southeast Asia that is made with sweet flavored shaved ice, crowned by canned fruit cocktail and a bit of powdered milk (delicacies in wartime), sweetened adzuki bean and cubes of gelatin and tapioca. Fresh fruit and condensed milk, now more readily available, may be substituted.