Biscuits can be a byword for western cookies. They are made by mixing ingredients such as flour, butter, eggs, and milk altogether, and then kneading and baking the dough. The ingredients for biscuits are similar to those used to bake bread, a staple for western people. The flour, in particular, is the key ingredient to make biscuits. So can you guess what the main ingredient is for ganjeong, or Korean puffs, a type of popular traditional cookie? Without a doubt, it is rice. This is because rice is an ingredient easily found in Korea.
Among the various kinds of rice, gangjeong is made with glutinous rice. The way of making the rice puffs is more complicated and takes a longer time than for western biscuits that can be baked in a matter of a few hours. With its variety of fermented dishes, hansik (Korean cuisine) is generally known as slow food. And gangjeong, though just a snack, lives up to this fame.
Crunchy at First and Then Melts Softly in the Mouth
It takes at least five days to make gangjeong. For the first four to five days, the glutinous rice is left to swell fully in water. There is no need to change the water in winter as the rice does not go bad during the swelling process. In the summer, however, it is important to change the water several times to allow gradual fermentation. This process is needed to achieve the unique texture of gangjeong. Gangjeong becomes less starchy and gains a crispier texture the longer the rice ferments.
Next, the liquid is drained and the remaining rice is ground to a fine powder. Sugar and water are added and the powder is made into dough, which is then steamed in a steamer or earthenware pot. The steamed rice is stirred for a long time and then spread thinly on a cutting board covered with wheat flower. This process is similar to that of making dough for bread or noodles. After that, the rice dough is cut into pieces as big as a thumb and dried. Next, the pieces are put in hot oil and fried. In this process they double in size. Lastly, the fried puffs are briefly dipped in jocheong (grain syrup) or yeot (starch syrup) and glazed with powdered ingredients such as fried and pounded grains of rice.
A Feast of Colors and Tastes
The basic form of gangjeong is white due to rice being its main ingredient. Similar to the image of the white color, white gangjeong tastes simple and light. The snack becomes much more colorful when natural edible pigments are added. A pigment made of gardenia flower, for example, gives gangjeong a yellowish hue, whereas mulberry and gromwell give it, respectively, a reddish or a pinkish hue.
Not only colors, but also the flavors can differ widely. If the puffs, after frying, are covered with bean flour, they become bean gangjeong and sesame coating gives them the taste of sesame. Koreans sometimes collect the pollen of blooming pine trees and then, with the addition of honey, apply it to the puffs to make the unique, fragrant yellow pine flower gangjeong. Other ingredients such as cinnamon powder, chopped pine nuts, and black sesame seeds can also be used to achieve different flavors. With these valuable ingredients, gripping colors, and unique flavors, gangjeong becomes a high-end dessert. One rarely finds deep fried dishes on a traditional Korean dining table. The possible exception is lightly griddled jeon (pancakes). The Korean diet in the old days was light and plain, based on rice and vegetables. Oil was not easy to get. Thus, gangjeong, which requires a large amount of oil, could not be served but on a special occasion such as a holiday or ancestral rite. That is how precious and delectable these sweets were.
Influence of Buddhism and Tea Culture
Buddhism played an important role in the development of traditional Korean sweets and cookies including gangjeong. The Goryeo dynasty, which lasted for approximately 500 years starting from the tenth century, proclaimed Buddhism as the official religion, so Koreans were forbidden from eating meat. Consequently, fried desserts like gangjeong were created to supplement for the lack of fats. Such desserts were suitable to be served on a table when offering a Buddhist prayer. Another important influence came from the tea culture that was also highly developed during the Goryeo dynasty. No other snack was as good as sweet gangjeong to go with the bitter, astringent tea.
Although fried in oil, crispy gangjeong is very light. All the features of gangjeong - its beautiful colors, sweet taste, and light texture - make it an excellent dessert that can entertain both the eyes and the taste buds. What’s more, there is no need to worry about the amount of calories when enjoying this light snack.
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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