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A bite of retro magic

South Korea is witnessing a sweet revolution as yakgwa, the traditional honey-glazed cookie, makes a spirited comeback

SEOUL (ANN/THE KOREA HERALD) – On a crisp October day, students from Seoul’s Sookmyung Women’s University ventured out for lunch.

Some stumbled upon Monday Picnic, a quaint bakery tucked away in an alley. Here, they indulged in yakgwa financier cakes, a modern twist on the traditional honey-glazed cookie used in ancestral rituals.

Yakgwa, a classic treat, is experiencing a resurgence in South Korea. Local retailers, like GS25’s Haengun Yakgwa snacks, have capitalised on this trend, selling over three million bags since June.

A yakgwa product. PHOTO: ANN?THE KOREA HERALD

“I have never really been a fan of yakgwa, but I became curious after it started trending. From yakgwa cookies and financier to ice cream, there are several forms, and they’re all pretty good,” said Jo Min-jeong, a 25-year-old college student.

The latest yakgwa craze stands apart from the retro trend that has boosted the popularity of pre-2010s pop culture content. It is prevalent among a young population today who do not have the strong connection to the snack as generations past.

One would have to trace further back into the 20th century to find a generation who frequently enjoyed the honey cookies.

Other than conscripted soldiers — who only had access to a handful of munchies in the barracks — about the only time one could find yakgwa was during such aforementioned rituals.

But thanks to social media, especially YouTube and TikTok, the snack that dates to the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) has come back into prominence among the young generation of South Korea today who call themselves “halmaenials” — a combination of the Korean word for “granny” and “millennials” that refers to youngsters with a nostalgic taste that reminds them of their grandparents.

The popularity of yakgwa does not depend on the power of nostalgia of those who had enjoyed it in their youth, but rests on the back of the “newtro” trend sweeping across the youth in Korea.

It is defined by reinterpretation of vintage or retro lifestyles, which means yakgwa is back — but it has taken on a new form in the recent craze.

Yakgwa trend among young

Booking concert tickets online for popular singers in Korea is a challenge that borders on impossibility: singer IU recently uploaded a video of her booking tickets for her own concert, which showed the seats disappearing within seconds of sales opening.

The newly coined “yak-keting” — “yakgwa” plus “ticketing” — refers to the act of frantically clicking for online reservations of yakgwa snacks from popular bakeries.

Boutique companies such as Jangin Hangwa take online reservations for yakgwa products at 5pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which become fully booked within moments.

Popular yakgwa brands usually add their own signature touches to differentiate themselves from other products.

Bomnal&Yakgwa features frozen yakgwa promoted as “crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside,” and like other popular yakgwa online shops, sells their products on a reservation basis.

The brand’s owner is an influencer who is among those who made yakgwa cool for the younger generation — YouTuber Jeong Hye-yeong, who goes by “Yeosu Unnie.”

The YouTuber has been a yakgwa advocate, collaborating with Hyundai Department Store for a pop-up shop while introducing yakgwa recipes.

Yakgwa’s nationwide popularity is nothing new. In fact, Goryeo King Gongmin actually issued a countrywide ban on making yakgwa in the 14th century, as excessive yakgwa consumption was causing a shortage of wheat, honey and sesame oil.

As rice farming made up most agriculture on the Korean Peninsula at the time, wheat products mostly relied on Chinese imports.

Yakgwa’s forbidden popularity extended into the following Joseon era (1392-1910), and some kings decreed that those who were caught making yakgwa during the ban would be punished with severe flogging.

Despite being an old-timey munchie, an overwhelming majority of yakgwa lovers now can be found among the youth.

Local convenience store CU’s yakgwa sales for April were 12.5 times those of April last year, and 40.9 per cent of sales were to customers in their 20s, while another 42.2 per cent were sold to 30-somethings.

Yakgwa, the traditional honey-glazed cookie, makes a spirited comeback. PHOTO: ANN/THE KOREA HERALD

SPC Samlip, one of the bigger food and beverage companies in the country, recently rolled out its latest K-dessert products at the Anuga trade fair in Cologne, Germany, and the company said the yakgwa products sparked the biggest reactions.

Some experts say yakgwa has a special appeal to the younger generation here.

Yakgwa is perceived generally as being made by hand, leading young people to see it as a type of ‘classy’ dessert that is not very detrimental to health,” said Lee Eun-hee, a professor of consumer science at Inha University.

“(Yakgwa) is easy to carry around, and can be enjoyed in various formats. It has a lot of elements that can appeal to young people.”

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