The amber gleam of yakgwa, South Korea’s “it” cookie

By Eric Kim, The New York Times

Once, when chef Junghyun Park was young, his cousin brought a piece of fresh honeycomb over to his house in Seoul.

Park’s mother cherished it, as fresh honey was coveted for its health properties in South Korea, and doled it out only when someone got sick. Stirred into a mug of hot water with a little ginger, the honey made fine tea. “We were drinking it almost like medicine,” Park said.

Perhaps no Korean dish represents the value of honey more than the ancient dessert yakgwa, a deep-fried honey cookie soaked in syrup. Yakgwa (“yak” means medicine and “gwa” means confection) is more than a vessel for coveted sweetness. It connects generations and tells the story of Korea’s reverence for tradition and optimism for the future.

Enjoyed since the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), these treats have seen a resurgence in popularity in South Korea and beyond, thanks in part to videos on YouTube and TikTok, and Korean dramas like the Netflix series “Alchemy of Souls.”

South Korea’s “Generation MZ” (a hybrid of millennials and Gen Zers) are the drivers of this new fixation on the past, more specifically young Koreans who call themselves “halmaenials” (a portmanteau of the words “halmoni,” meaning grandma, and millennial). This nostalgic generation has revitalized not only the culinary custom of yakgwa, but also the market for it.

In South Korea, new boutique companies like Golden Piece and Jangin Hangwa are focused on selling yakgwa for modern tastes, with flavors ranging from the original ginger-honey to lavender, chocolate and even cookies-and-cream.

It can be more difficult to get your hands on these cookies than it is to reserve a table at Tatiana at Lincoln Center, and demand has necessitated an online ticketing system known as “yakketing,” where eager yakgwa consumers place orders with independent businesses. Shops in Korea can sell out in 60 seconds.

Koreans have long sought after yakgwa with this sort of enthusiasm. Kings of Korea’s Goryeo dynasty even banned the making and eating of yakgwa because the popularity of its main ingredients — wheat, honey and sesame oil — created scarcity and sent prices soaring.

Traditionally, yakgwa was served only on special occasions, such as festival days like Chuseok and Seollal, birthdays and at life’s four rites of passage, known as gwan-hon-sang-je: coming-of-age (gwan), marriage (hon), death (sang) and the veneration of the dead (je), a custom which many families still practice today.

The lesson is universal: Only in maturing through life do you get to partake in its richest pleasures.

When Hyaeweol Choi’s mother died in 2012, the funeral made her realize the power of gathering at life’s critical junctures, including in death. Funerals are meeting points, said Choi, a gender historian and professor of Korean studies at the University of Iowa, where strong bonds are forged among relatives, both living and dead, who are otherwise “scattered over time.”

A year later, Choi performed the fourth rite of passage for her mother in the form of jesa, which involves setting a large table with candles and a rich assortment of food and drink offerings for the deceased.

If Choi’s mother had a specialty, it was her encyclopedic knowledge of Korean ceremonial foods like yakgwa and how to present them. That’s why the recent commercialization of the cookie, with its ubiquity among young people who respect the tradition enough to reinterpret it, has delighted Choi. “Food evolves constantly, adjusting to new demands and new tastes,” she said.

Today, Koreans enjoy yakgwa outside of those rites of passage, like as an after-school snack or weekday dessert with vanilla ice cream. Korean restaurant Cho Dang Gol in Manhattan serves on-the-house packages of delicious mini yakgwa at the end of the meal with your check, like soft mints or sticks of gum.

Still, a bite of homemade yakgwa tends to exceed anything store-bought, nine times out of 10. Since yakgwa is fried, the oil can go rancid in mass-produced packaged versions, so making the cookies from scratch is a quest worth pursuing. When fresh, the cookie’s sticky, amber syrup should drip off slowly, drenching your fingers, like Winnie the Pooh’s paw, in honey.

While the chewy outside gives way, the crunchy interior resists slightly. (The YouTube star and cookbook author Maangchi uses the word “juicy” to describe biting into fresh yakgwa.)

This idiosyncratic dough is a tangle of flour, sesame oil, soju, honey and spices. In my yakgwa, ground ginger and cinnamon recall the gently sugared flavors of Korean staples like sujeonggwa, a refreshing cinnamon punch, and yaksik, a lovely sweetened rice with chestnuts, pine nuts and jujubes (a kind of red date).

The crispy, flaky fried cookies are dunked in a glossy jocheong, a not-too-sweet Korean brown rice syrup, which here is boiled with chunks of fresh ginger and a little honey.

In many ways, the frying is as easy as baking; your medium just happens to be a steady, simmering pool of oil, crowded with disks of dough. They puff ever so slightly to reveal their layers. Soaking crunchy cookie in gingery syrup requires patience, but that’s all right. The sweetest things in life take time.

Yakgwa comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mold, though the fluted flower shape may be the most common. In “The Korean Cookbook,” written by Park, the chef who sips honey like medicine, and researcher and chef Jungyoon Choi, there’s a recipe for a crispier, flakier variation of yakgwa in the form of rectangles. This style is emblematic of a rich food culture Park called a “hidden gem of Korean cuisine,” from the city of Kaesong in North Korea.

“Of course we cannot go there anymore,” he said. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a connection. “We share the culture, we share the language and we share the food as well.”

Despite its ancient roots, yakgwa is hardly a time capsule. Like the city of Seoul, it’s a living, breathing piece of tangible heritage. Iterating is what keeps it alive.

Yakgwa (Honey Cookies)

By Eric Kim

These not-too-sweet Korean honey cookies, fried and then soaked in gingery syrup, are uniquely soft and chewy on the outside and flaky on the inside. Called yakgwa (yak meaning “medicine” and gwa meaning “confection”), these treats originally from the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) are seeing a resurgence in popularity from Seoul to the world, thanks to social media. Traditionally served on Korean festival days like Chuseok and Seollal, birthdays and ancestral rites like jesa, the anniversary of a loved one’s passing, yakgwa are also an encapsulation of Korea’s dessert history. At a time when sugar was not a main sweetener, sweetness was achieved with ingredients like rice syrup and honey, paired with ginger and cinnamon. Enjoy these on their own with a cup of tea or try them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, which lends balance to the sticky sweetness. For a vegan option, the honey can be swapped with maple syrup for incredible results.

Yield: 20 (2-inch) cookies

Total time: About 27 hours


For the cookies:

  • 2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup honey or maple syrup
  • 5 tablespoons soju (see Tips), plus more if needed
  • About 1 quart canola or vegetable oil, for frying
  • Crystallized ginger, sesame seeds or pine nuts, for garnish (optional)

For the syrup:

  • 1/2 cup jocheong (Korean brown rice syrup; see Tips)
  • 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
  • 1 (2-inch) piece fresh (unpeeled) ginger, sliced


1. Make the cookie dough: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, ground ginger, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 grinds pepper. Add the sesame oil and whisk to distribute. Switching to a spoon, stir in the honey and soju until there’s no more loose flour and the mixture starts to form a craggy dough. If needed, you can add more soju, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough is hydrated. Press the dough together with your hands, cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to rest for at least 1 hour and up to 2, during which it will continue to hydrate and cohere even more.

2. Meanwhile, make the syrup: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the brown rice syrup, honey, ginger and 2 tablespoons water to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and set aside, covered, to infuse and cool slightly.

3. Roll out the cookies: Using a rolling pin or empty wine bottle, roll the dough into a rectangle that is roughly 1/4-inch-thick, then fold it in half, pressing the sides to create even edges and roll it out again. Fold and roll the dough out like this 4 more times.

4. Use a round, 2-inch cookie cutter (or the lip of a champagne flute) to cut out rounds. You will need to roll out the scraps a few more times to use up all of the dough, resulting in about 20 cookies. Using a fork, dock the top of each cookie twice, piercing all the way through.

5. Fry the cookies: Set a wire rack on a sheet pan. In a wide pot, heat about 1 inch of oil to 225 degrees over medium, then reduce the heat to low. Working in batches, add the cookies in a single layer and fry until deeply golden brown and slightly puffed, 25 to 30 minutes per batch. (Flip cookies occasionally for even browning and adjust the heat as needed so the oil bubbles gently and stays 225 degrees.) Transfer the cookies to the rack and cool fully, at least 30 minutes.

6. Soak the cookies: Remove the ginger from the syrup. Transfer the cookies to a wide resealable container, drizzle evenly with the syrup and toss to coat. Cover tightly and soak at room temperature overnight (or up to 24 hours), flipping occasionally to evenly soak.

7. Before serving, remove the cookies from the syrup, then garnish with crystallized ginger, sesame seeds or pine nuts, if desired. In a tightly sealed container, fresh yakgwa keep for up to 3 days at room temperature.


Soju, Korea’s national beverage, is a clear and distilled grain alcohol that can be found in most liquor stores. It tends to come in 375-milliliter glass bottles with screw tops, making it ideal to keep on hand for cooking (or drinking). If you can’t find soju, vodka and sake work in a pinch.

Some yakgwa recipes call for replacing the not-too-sweet brown rice syrup, jocheong, with all honey or corn syrup, but those results might lean too sweet. A bottle of jocheong is not just a nuanced sweetener but also makes yakgwa glisten. It’s a valuable ingredient that can be found online and in Korean grocery stores.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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