All over social media people are taking the dalgona coffee challenge and posting their creations.
First they mix two tablespoons of instant coffee or espresso powder, two tablespoons of sugar, and two tablespoons of very hot water. Some people use a hand mixer, while others use a spoon, constantly stirring the concoction until it turns from brown to beige and takes on a thick, foamy texture. Then they spoon the mixture on top of a glass of hot or cold milk.
The result? A sweet-tasting milky coffee.
However, not many people know that dalgona, or ppopgi in Korean, means "honeycomb toffee", and for many Koreans evokes strong memories of street food from their childhoods.
"When I was a child I remember old guys selling these honeycomb snacks," says Kenny Hong Kyoung-soo, co-founder of Cafe Cha in Seoul. "I ate them almost every day after school. They were very cheap, just sugar and water, and they had a very sweet taste, followed by a bitter aftertaste."
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The treat was very popular in South Korea in the 1970s and 80s - before American fast-food chain McDonald's opened in the country in 1988. Hong says it was created after the Korean war (1950-53), during which US Army personnel gave out confectionery to local children. Their parents, unable to spare money for such treats, went about trying to make their own versions.
Dalgona is made by mixing sugar with water and boiling it until it starts turning slightly yellow. Then baking soda is added, after which the mixture breaks down and carbon dioxide is released. The liquidised sugar puffs up and hardens, becoming light and crunchy.
Dalgona sold on South Korean streets resemble large lollipops with the outline of a shape - a heart, star or other simple design - pressed into the middle. The aim is to eat the dalgona around the outline without breaking the shape in the middle.
"Every Korean has the same memory of this, so we wanted to introduce dalgona to Koreans and others through drinks," explains Hong, whose shop opened last September.
Dalgona is not like caramel, which is just sweet, Hong says; instead, it tastes sweet at first then has a bitter finish, making it a perfect match for milk tea.
"Every culture has their own milk tea. The British use sugar cubes, in Taiwan they use syrup, and in my case I use dalgona."
It took him about a year to come up with his dalgona milk tea and coffee concoctions. A tall glass of iced milk is prepared, then a strong concentration of Assam tea or coffee is artfully poured around the edges of the glass for streaks to appear, before the drink is topped with spoonfuls of crushed dalgona.
Customers wait around five to 10 minutes for the dalgona to melt and fall down into the drink before taking their first sips.
Hong says unlike bubble tea that only appeals to young people, dalgona drinks are appreciated by older generations as well who have fond memories of the street snack.
The dalgona coffee challenge started in January when Korean actor Jung Il-woo showed how to make the drink, albeit modified, during a television appearance at his home.
"You can find the recipe on YouTube, but he made it with instant coffee mix, with sugar and water, and mixed them together until they became a foam," Hong says.
"We are happy that people are getting to know dalgona coffee, but foreigners don't know how the real dalgona is made."
With travel restrictions in place around the world enforced by the coronavirus outbreak, few will be able to fly to Seoul to try the real dalgona any time soon. We'll just have to be content with mixing the drink ourselves at home.
Like cooking? For Asian recipes to make at home for friends and family, visit SCMP Cooking.
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