According to the JoongAng Ilbo, bagels have really hit it big in Korea. In the expat-o-sphere, we’ve been noticing more bagel shops pop up over the years in our group Restaurant Buzz Seoul. The New Yorkers and Montréalers pooh-poohed most of the offerings. Not chewy enough. Too much cream cheese. Trying to make them as sweet as doughnuts. Or just not understanding how a bagel should be sliced before applying cream cheese.
I have two indicators for when a food has become a big trend. One is when I see a type of food in an area that is not that adventurous–like the suburbs I live in. I was surprised last year to find gourmet $5 doughnuts and really good patisseries in my culinarily conservative neighborhood.
The other indicator is when my non-adventurous Korean friends say they want to try a certain food that I’d been hearing buzz about. Years ago, I knew the ribs with cheese thing was blowing up when my rice-and-kimchi-every-meal (RAKEM?) friends said they wanted to try them. This past weekend, one of them said she wanted to go to Anguk-dong to stand in line for bagels.
I knew of one bagel place in Anguk-dong that’s always closed when I’m in the area, but I’m usually there in the evening getting ready to lead the Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walk. I’d never tried it. But if my suburban RAKEM friend who almost never goes into the city wants to journey there early in the morning to wait in line for one–hmm… something’s happening.
The eatery in the JoongAng newsletter is Brick Lane Bagel, based in London.
London? Bagels? A little discordant there.
Turns out, TIL, that Brick Lane has a respected history with “beigels” since 1974. As someone who was born that year, it’s troubling to read articles that treat that as ancient history.
Where the London versions seem to be massively stuffed with meats and pickles, the Korean way is to load them down with cream cheese.
Why are bagels hitting it big?
Korea doesn’t have a significant Jewish community–only 1,000 or so. Bagels have been introduced by Koreans studying, working, or growing up overseas bringing what they loved from those places to the Land of the Morning Crowds.
According to the newsletter, it was COVID. Korea started really getting into bread about as much as western countries were getting into home breadmaking. Korean consumption of bread went up 68% between 2018 and 2022. For semantics sake, I’m doing the Korean thing here and including pastries and anything made with dough and baked as “bread.”
The Korean style bagel is characterized by not being as chewy as the North American versions. This I find surprising, as the Korean palate leans towards chewy textures (tteokbokki, chewy bacon, chewy Jeju black pork, savory jellies–I could make a big list and another post about this). They’re also moister.
Korean ingredients, like buchu (Chinese chives), raw garlic, and sweet red beans are mixed with the cream cheese an loaded on.
As for me, I’ve fallen in love with another pastry that’s gotten big lately: Salt Bread (Sogeum Bbang 소금빵). Supposedly, they were invented in Japan as Shio Pan (again, “Salt Bread”). They look like croissants, but they have the texture of Thanksgiving dinner rolls with an airy pocket. The outside is brushed with salt water, which produces a crispy shattering crust. They’re just salty enough with no sweetness, which is a rarity in a country that loves to turn every bread product into candy.
My grouchy expat cynicism in check, I have been thrilled to see this new phase of Korean baked goods emerge. Ketchup-laden sugar-garlic pastries are giving way to more sophisticated and positively localized fare. It’s an exciting time to be here.