One of Maddy Park’s earliest memories of street food was when vendors set up a portable stove outside her elementary school in Seoul, South Korea, to sell a candy for around a dime. It was partly a treat, partly a game.
The candy makers melted sugar and foamed it with a pinch of baking soda to make this dalgona candy, Ms. Park recalled. They then squeezed the mixture flat and pushed shapes like a circle, triangle, square, star, or umbrella into the center. Ms. Park’s classmates determinedly tried to pick out the needle-stamped shape without breaking it – a game called ppopgi. If the kids managed to remove the shape from the brittle candy, they would win another free treat.
“Dalgona was one of the cheapest, most unhealthy and addicting games of chance for me at age 7,” said Ms. Park, now 28 and living in downtown Brooklyn, New York.
Ms. Park is one of many Koreans whose memories of dalgona candy, also known as ppopgi, have surfaced with the release of “Squid Game” on Netflix last month. The fictional series follows a group of cash-strapped people ready to die playing childhood games for a chance at a jackpot. Episode 3 is devoted to ppopgi.
Learn more about “Squid Game” on Netflix.
“There’s kind of a game element, kind of like in the ‘Squid Game’ but with no life or death,” JinJoo Lee, 55, the Korean food blogger behind Kimchimari, said of ppopgi. Her dalgona candy recipe, which she posted online in 2018, has seen a 30% increase in traffic over the past few days. Similar candies are popular around the world, she said, but they have different names.
Dalgona candy filled a sweet void in postwar South Korea for children who had become accustomed to free chocolates offered by American soldiers, said Albert Park, associate professor of Korean history at Claremont McKenna College of Claremont, California. Dalgona was cheap. and accessible, he says.
At first, glucose was used because raw sugar was expensive, Park said. But sellers probably started using sugar after the Korean War, when companies started processing it from its raw form, he said. Caramel-colored honeycomb candies became common in the 1960s and were sold outside of elementary schools and toy stores.
Dalgona sellers began to disappear in the early 2000s, as online shopping became more popular and toy stores began to close, Park said. It is also likely that the rise of the candy industry in South Korea and its proliferation of other types of cheap candy has put many dalgona candy makers out of business.
But due to the popularity of “Squid Game,” the candy has returned as a retro, nostalgic snack, Mr. Park said. “For some of these young Koreans, I don’t think they consciously think it’s Korean candy, but it’s a way to connect with their story that they don’t necessarily want to do in a book of. history, ”he said.
Social media guided her leap to world fame, introducing the candy to people outside of South Korea.
The name dalgona has become more familiar to Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic due to the popularity of whipped coffee also known as dalgona. The drink rose to fame in January 2020 after actor Jung Il-woo tried it out in Macau on “Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant,” a South Korean TV show. He said it reminded him of dalgona candy, unofficially naming the drink in the process. It then feverishly spread to coffee shops in South Korea and eventually made its way to the United States.
Some people, however, say that the spread of dalgona candy via social media can separate them from their cultural significance. “Dalgona candy is representative of the K-pop and K-drama fetishization, and to see one thing and say, ‘Wow, I discovered Korean culture,'” said Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and an expert on race and racism in Hollywood, “when in fact candy, movies, TV shows, all of those things, did exist.
Fans love the candy’s blend of bitter, nutty and sweet flavors. “The flavor, for whatever reason, stays with you,” said Annie Yoo, 46, of Düsseldorf, Germany.
Ms. Yoo’s most vivid memories of South Korea are of foods like dalgona candy, as she was only 6 years old when she immigrated to the United States. She remembers the dirt roads she took to get to the dalgona street vendors under their tarpaulins.
“I really miss this candy,” she added. “In the midst of all the things we were going through, you barely get any treats. It was truly magical. “
In a YouTube video in which the cast of “Squid Game” react to certain scenes, Chae Kyung-sun, the artistic director of the series, reveals that the dalgona candy was the most delicate accessory to work with. Backstage, she said, there was a professional who continued to make the candy during filming.
Those who have played the candy game approach it with different strategies. Hwang Dong-hyuk, writer and director of the series, incorporated his own into the series: the series’ main character, Seong Gi-hun, repeatedly licks the candy to loosen the shape of the middle umbrella. It’s something the director said he used to win awards when he was younger.
But Ms. Park, who ate the candy outside of her elementary school in Seoul, never managed to win a free candy.