While rice and other grains are mostly used for the staple dish of steamed rice, they are also the main ingredients in rice cake. Rice cakes take a lot of time and devotion to make, but nonetheless, they are always served during celebrations and commemorative occasions. People like rice cake for its soft and chewy texture as well as its sweet and savory flavor, and as the Korean saying goes, “no matter how full, there’s always room for rice cake.”
Rice cakes are made by adding fruits, nuts or vegetables to rice, glutinous rice or other grains. Made with a great deal of delicacy and devotion, rice cakes are unique creations that blossomed from a rice culture. First introduced during the Korean ancient times, there are hundreds o different kinds of rice cakes. They are categorized into four groups: sirutteok is made by steaming various powdered grains, chapssaltteok is made by pounding steamed glutinous rice, gyeongdan is made by boiling kneaded grains, and jeonbyeong is made by pan-frying glutinous rice dough.
Baekseolgi (snow-white rice cake) and garaetteok (long cylinder-shaped rice cake) are white in color and both symbolize auspiciousness, sacredness and purity, which is why baekseolgi is seen on a baby’s 100th day and 1st birthday parties, and garaetteok is served as rice cake soup for breakfast on new year’s day. Gyeongdan (sweet rice balls) are made in five different colors and are also served on a baby’s 100th day and 1st birthday parties. The colorful rice balls represent the parents’ hope for their child to grow as an adult full of the five spirits of life. Injeolmi (rice cakes coated with powdered soybeans), which are very soft, are prepared for weddings to wish couples everlasting love. Sirutteok with red beans are prepared on shaman rituals to drive away misfortune and welcome good luck. Yaksik (sweet rice with nuts and jujubes) is a different variation of rice cake made to wish good health. Hwajeon (flower griddlecakes) are made with glutinous rice dough and decorated with real edible flowers and served to enjoy the tasteful presentation.
Beautifully shaped and great tasting rice cakes are a treat to the mouth and eyes, and such rice cakes are often mentioned in Korean idioms. For instance, the saying “a rice cake in a painting” means something good but unattainable. “Eating rice cakes while lying down” refers to a task that can be done very easily like eating rice cake lying down. Koreans have always loved rice cakes, and in order to keep the tradition going, rice cakes have been modernized to suit modern and younger consumers. Today’s modernized selection of rice cakes includes cakes, sandwiches, and fruit rice cakes.
Dagwa are teas and sweets enjoyed as desserts or snacks, or when welcoming guests. The colorful and beautifully shaped traditional Korean sweets are a delight to the mouth and eyes, and there are a variety of teas that go well with the sweets.
Hangwa (traditional Korean sweets) are healthy desserts made by mixing fruits, medicinal herbs and edible plants and flowers with honey or syrup and powdered grain. As they are made to resemble colors and shapes of nature, many traditional sweets look like actual fruits. This is due to ancestral rituals. In times when fruits were not always available, cookies and other treats were made to look like fruits to be presented on the ancestral table. Depending on the cooking method, traditional Korean sweets are categorized into yumilgwa (fried), jeong (simmered in syrup or honey), dasik (pressing dough with wooden mold), and gangjeong (fried and syrup-coated).
Traditional Korean sweets are always accompanied by a tea or drink that complements the sweet. Tea culture dates back to the Korean ancient times, and it centers on green tea, which was chosen as one of the ten healthiest foods in the world by The New York Times. Along with green tea, popular traditional teas include ginseng tea and jujube tea, and traditional drinks include sujeonggwa (cinnamon punch), sikhye (sweet rice drink) and hwachae (fruit punch). The refreshments served differ by season, and ideal combinations are: pressed sweets with green tea in spring, candied lotus roots with omija hwachae (five-flavor berry punch) in summer, syrup-coated chestnut with chrysanthemum tea in autumn, and dried persimmon slices with ginger tea in winter.
While traditional sweets and drinks are usually served at formal and elegant gatherings, there are also simpler and easier to make Korean snacks. Sugar-filled pancakes, rice puffs and fan shaped crackers are common snacks easily available at traditional markets, supermarkets or street vendors. These snacks, which were introduced with the modernization of Korea, are tasty, very affordable, and come in large portions. They were regarded as snacks of the ordinary people, and remain just as popular today. Recently, these snacks have been upgraded and sold at premium bakeries in department stores, and fancy cafés. Bingsu, which is shaved ice topped with sweet red beans, condensed milk, fruits and other toppings, was also a popular summer street snack, but these days, luxury hotels and restaurants have been serving upgraded and fancier versions of the popular dessert.