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Ode to Hotteok

I was an unassuming passerby, merely meandering through the endless stalls in Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Square. I was a sponge to the environment, soaking in the unintelligible crowd chatter, slight October breeze, and the different smells: sometimes seafood, other times street food. Having eaten freshly cooked clams for lunch just half an hour prior with friends, I was not particularly hungry. We were on what I like to call a “digestion walk” — the casual stroll after a meal, usually done in high spirits. Little did I know that life had more in store, that the day was just about to get even better (as if fresh seafood for lunch was not enough). Even while I was “full,” there was a special 호떡 (hotteok) shaped space in my stomach;  I soon found that the sweet Korean snack carved a permanent place in my heart as well.

Our relaxing digestion walk took a sudden pause in front of a street food stall in the middle of BIFF Square. A blue, red, and green striped canopy offered the stall shade on the mildly sunny day. The top of the canopy read in Hangul, in large white font: 씨앗호떡 (ssiat hotteok). Seed hotteok. 1,000 won (which is less than a dollar). My hotteok-loving friend encouraged us to try it out. I couldn’t wait.

While studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, I had tried a variety of Korean street food. Hotteok was surprisingly one I had not experienced until a couple months in. Because hotteok is incredibly popular, it can be found anywhere in Seoul (so I didn’t really have an excuse for waiting that long). However, visiting Busan for its annual film festival in October presented itself as a prime opportunity to try ssiat hotteok, a version only found in the southern city. 

The only information I could use to discern the characteristics of this intriguing street snack, having never tried it, was by observing the seller’s preparation of it. Here’s a video of how ssiat hotteok is made!

The vendor, a kind-eyed elderly woman, was lightning fast, having mastered the recipe. She shaped flexible dough into circles, spooned in a light brown mixture in the middle, and gathered around the edges of the dough to form a ball and secure the inside mixture. Watching her prepare hotteok was mesmerizing — so fast yet fascinatingly precise. 

I later learned that the dough was made of flour, yeast, milk, salt, and sugar. Sticky and flexible, it served as a secure encasing for the filling when shallowly fried. The filling consisted of a mixture of brown sugar and ground cinnamon. The vendor fried the balls in oil on a large grill and pressed them flat into disks. Hotteok was done cooking when it was lightly golden brown on both sides, after being turned over occasionally. The vendor then cut a slit in the middle of the disk to create a pocket for additional filling. In true Busan-fashion, the vendor generously stuffed the hotteok with seeds including pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

What makes Busan-style hotteok so distinct is this inclusion of the variety of seeds in the inside (hence called ssiat hotteok). Other preparations of hotteok around the country also add chopped nuts like walnuts, peanuts, or almonds. Some don’t add filling beyond the standard cinnamon and sugar mixture, as hotteok preparation can vary city to city, and even between vendors of the same city. A couple weeks later I even tried matcha hotteok! There is something for everyone.

Vendor frying hotteok.

Photo credit: Saamia Bukhari

The vendor carefully placed the hot and fresh ssiat hotteok in paper cups. Time to dig in.

Biting inside the hotteok, the gooey sugar and cinnamon syrup immediately greeted my taste buds and oozed out. It was piping hot. Should I have waited a couple of minutes and let it cool down? Maybe. But I couldn’t resist. The seeds doused in the sticky sugary goodness offered a textural element and crunch. The density of the fried dough cut through the sweet inside. It was divine. The perfect post-lunch dessert.

Hot and fresh hotteok.

Photo credit: Saamia Bukhari

Upon first chew, I immediately concluded that it topped my Korean street food rankings. It was unlike any other sweet street food I had tasted in the country: an impeccable balance of crunch and sweet, an elite dough to filling ratio. Dangerously addictive. And under a dollar? An absolute dream. At that moment, my life was divided into two parts. B.H. and A.H.: Before Hotteok and After Hotteok. Was it really that impactful? Yes.

Standing in the shade, the three of us held our hotteok preciously, as if they were going to grow wings and fly away at any moment. We ate carefully to not get burned from the hot, gooey sugar, though I still managed to despite my best efforts. I was overwhelmed with a sense of happiness, a certain contentment felt when experiencing good food with good friends. At the same time, there was an underlying, heart-tugging sadness, as each bite inevitably meant getting closer to finishing it. However, the memory will remain as fresh as the hotteok made that afternoon. Busan’s mid-day warmth, film festival excitement, adventurous friends, and of course, ssiat hotteok… together these seemingly separate elements planted the seeds to a wonderful day.

One reply on “Ode to Hotteok”

Elegantly written easy picturesque language. Great video. Something totally new for me. Hotteok wow !!! Sure to try it out for kids around me.

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