One dish that I believe is universally adored in Korea is hotteok. It is a leavened dough cake that is stuffed with cinnamon, sugar, and nuts. Then, the dough is flattened and fried. Through the frying process the sugar melts to create a delicious caramel filling.
According to some accounts from food historians, this snack was brought to Korea by Chinese immigrants when they first landed in Incheon seaport. And even though the snack and its name resemble western “hot cake,” hotteok’s etymology is Chinese/Korean. “Ho” comes from the Chinese for “barbarian” and “tteok” is Korean for rice cake. The original version of this dish had meat inside like the Mongolian Khuushuur but it later evolved to a sweet snack.
These days there are many different versions of hotteok all over Korea, from sweet to savory. You will find versions of this snack on the streets, in convenience stores, cafes and even in fine dining establishments. Typically this was a wintertime only snack but these days you can get it year round.
However, I recommend that you find a busy hotteok stall in January and wait in line for 20 minutes as your fingertips and face freeze. The first bite of this crisp and chewy, “caramelley” snack is like a shot of adrenaline. Many modern versions of this snack include exotic fillings such as kimchi and pork, sweet potato noodles and veggies, red beans, and even various nuts and seeds.
There are differing methods of cooking it as well. Some like to have it deep fried, some make it crispy on a hot pan, whereas others prefer to just add a little bit of oil and cook it on a hot surface. Whatever way you like it, you’ll be sure to get a great snack.
Here is a list of some of my favorite hotteok places in Seoul.
-The Million Dollar Ajumma
Rumor has it that the ajumma (a middle-aged/married woman) that started the honey hotteok and vegetable hotteok stand makes $USD1 million a year. I guess it’s possible since you’ll usually encounter queues down the block. They are so busy that they need helpers to manage the lines. At this hotteok stand you’ll see tourists and locals all waiting for this amazing treat. So what makes it so special? The ajumma is most known for her vegetable japchae hotteok (stir - fried sweet potato noodles with vegetable). The light dough is stuffed with a heaping helping of seasoned sweet potato noodles and vegetables and fried until there is a crisp crust on the outside. The noodles are flavorful but not too mushy and they brush some sweet fruit-soy sauce on it. Although this dish is supposed to be a snack, it is big enough for a meal (and for only 1,000 won, it’s a steal). You’ll find this stand by Namdaemun Market Station Exit 2. Get in line and wait for your vegetable hotteok delight.
Namdaemun Market Station Exit 2
Price: 1,000 won
If you happen to stroll down from Anguk Station Exit 4, you might see a little truck parked. In the back is a jovial grandpa making hotteok on a circular pan. The hotteok here is quite light and fluffy - it is more baked than fried. The grandfather bakes it so that there is a pocket of air inside. The little cakes have a light sugar and cinnamon flavor that is quite reminiscent of Christmas. These hotteok are a great walking food - just a quick snack to get you to your next destination. Also, I don’t think this grandpa has quite caught up with the times for he is only charging 500 won per cake.
Go out Anguk Station Exit 4 and walk straight. Look for the truck on the sidewalk past Unhyeongung Palace.
Price: 500 won
The way to entice Koreans to try something is to add a “well-being” or “good for health” moniker to a name. Do you think there really is a “healthy” chocolate pie or potato chip? Well, this trend can also be applied to hotteok. The healthy version of this dish started in Busan and has made its way to Seoul. The dish takes a regular hotteok, dusts it in sugar, and then adds a mix of pumpkin, sunflower seeds, and walnuts on it. The healthy and fortifying nuts double the price to 2,000 won per cake. I have to admit, the crunchiness adds complexity to the dish, but I am not going to buy the idea that it is healthier since it is still fried in oil.
Across from the McDonald’s at Noryangjin Station Exit 1.
-High-end Hotteok from W.e.
W.e. takes Korean concepts and modernizes them by using western techniques and ingredients. What this also does is inflate the price by almost ten times. Their banana hotteok is like a modular bananas foster. The batter is stuffed with ripe bananas, nuts, sugar, and spices and then fried in a circular mold. The plate is then drizzled with spiced caramel; one hotteok is placed and topped with bruleed bananas. Then it is topped with the second hotteok with more bananas and garnished with crushed pistachios. You can even get it served ala mode with Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Variations such as berry and apple are also available. The cafe has a range of cocktails, teas, and coffees to go with the hotteok.
Jongno-gu Palpan-dong 43-2
Price: 9,000~12,000 won
Park Sung Eun email@example.com
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