Hotteok’s warm, sticky-sweet rebirth

The hardest part about eating hotteok is the wait, said chef Judy Joo. It takes a few minutes for the hot sugar encased in crunchy, chewy pancakes to change from a mouth-burning melted goo to a hot, gooey goodness.

As a child, she visited Seoul stalls that sold Korean sweets during the winter. “It was torture, standing there in the cold” with the joyful scent of sugar and cinnamon filling the air, he said.

These days, Ms. Joo, 47, a chef and cookbook author, prepares her hotteok at home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He combines the bread flour with the sweet rice flour and stuffs each pancake with a filling of muscovado, peanuts, cinnamon and salt, then fries the meaty washers until they turn a nice bright golden color.

Hotteok (pronounced somewhere between HO-tuck and HO-duck) is available in both sweet and savory versions, from mozzarella to matcha, although the cinnamon and sugar filling is among the most popular nowadays. At Jinjuu, the Korean restaurant in London that Ms Joo ran until 2019, one of her best-selling dishes was a Snickers-inspired hotteok, filled with salted caramel, chocolate ganache, peanut butter, and praline.

Ms. Joo isn’t the only Korean chef to experiment with hotteok. At Mokbar, New York, Esther Choi stuffs hers with pork belly. Sammy Pak sold one with ham and cheese in his pop-up, Sammy’s, in Oakland, California. Frankseoul, a South Korean coffee chain that opened a branch in Frisco, Texas, in 2020, offers Nutella-filled hotteoks. (Trader Joe’s started selling his “sweet cinnamon-filled Korean pancakes” last year.)

Despite all this innovation, 55-year-old JinJoo Lee, who writes on the Korean cooking blog Kimchimari, said the dish is more nostalgic for people of her generation, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. For them, it is reminiscent of a time when there was little foreign influence on South Korean foods, as that country was under an authoritarian rule.

Yet hotteok itself is a product of external forces. It was brought to the country by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, as an adaptation of bing. The sweet variant became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when American foreign aid after the Korean War introduced cheap wheat and sugar to the country. Hotteok was cheap to produce and sell, convenient for a time when South Korea’s economy was in trouble.

Young Koreans today may not have grown up on hotteok, Ms. Lee said. In fact, many food stalls selling hotteok are now gone, as the government severely restricted street vendors during the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, arguing that the stalls made the city less walkable.

But recently, as those youngsters reached adulthood, many have rediscovered hotteok, he said. “He’s coming back.”

“With the popularity of K-dramas and K-pop, there is an interest in Korean food,” said John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. (Members of the Korean pop band BTS recently published online photos of themselves eating hotteok.) “Both K-pop stars and Korean drama stars constantly eat Korean food.”

Al Jua, a Korean restaurant with tasting menus in Manhattan, chef Hoyoung Kim serves hotteok as a final dish, stir-fried to order and lacquered with a muscovado-based syrup. He wanted to show that the humble dish could be part of a fine dining experience.

“It’s more than street food,” said Mr. Kim, 36. “It’s Korean soul food”.

Recipe: Hotteok (stuffed sweet pancakes)