The most challenging thing about eating hotteok is the wait, said Chef Judy Joo. It takes a few minutes for the hot sugar encased in the crispy, chewy pancakes to go from melted, burnt goo to warm, sticky goodness.
As a child, she frequented stalls in Seoul that sold the Korean delicacy in winter. “It was torture to stand out there in the cold” with the happy scent of sugar and cinnamon filling the air, she said.
Today, Mrs. Joo, 47, a chef and cookbook author, makes her own hotteok home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She combines bread flour with sweet rice flour, then fills each pancake with a filling of muscovado, peanuts, cinnamon and salt, then deep-fry the thick rounds until they are a brilliant golden brown.
Hotteok (pronounced somewhere between HO-tuck and HO-duck) comes in both sweet and savory versions, from mozzarella to matcha, although the cinnamon-and-sugar filling is one of the most popular these days. At Jinjuu, the Korean restaurant in London that Mrs. Joo ran until 2019, one of her best-selling dishes was a Snickers-inspired hotteok, with a filling of salted caramel, chocolate ganache, peanut butter and praline.
Ms. Joo isn’t the only Korean chef experimenting with hotteok. At Mokbar, in New York, Esther Choi fills her with pork belly. Sammy Pak sold one with ham and cheese at his pop-up Sammy’s in Oakland, California. Frankseoul, a South Korean cafe chain that opened a branch in Frisco, Texas in 2020, offers Nutella-filled hotteok. (Trader Joe’s started selling its own “sweet cinnamon-filled Korean pancakes” last year.)
Despite all that innovation, JinJoo Lee, 55, who writes the Korean food blog Kimchimari, said the dish feels 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 food because that country was under authoritarian rule.
Yet hotteok itself is a product of outside forces. It was brought to the country by Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s as an adaptation of bing. The sweet variety became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when US foreign aid introduced cheap wheat and sugar to the country after the Korean War. Hotteok was cheap to make and sell – useful for a time when South Korea’s economy was struggling.
Today’s young Koreans may not have grown up with hotteok, Ms. Lee said. In fact, many food stalls selling hotteok have now disappeared, as the government severely restricted street vendors during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as the stalls made the city less walkable.
But recently, as those young people matured, many rediscovered hotteok, she said. “It’s making a comeback.”
“With the popularity of K-dramas and K-pop, there’s an interest in Korean food,” said John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. (Recent members of the Korean pop band BTS Posted online photos of themselves eating hotteok.) “Both the K-pop stars and the Korean drama stars eat Korean food all the time.”
At Jua, a Korean tasting menu restaurant in Manhattan, Chef Hoyoung Kim serves hotteok as the final dish, baked to order and varnished with a syrup made from muscovado. He wanted to show that the simple dish can be part of a culinary experience.
“It’s more than a street food,” said Mr. Kim, 36. “It’s a Korean soul food.”
Recipe: Hotteok (Sweet Stuffed Pancakes)