In 1987, Def Leppard sang the words “Pour some sugar on me”, but it was about a decade earlier that the Koreans beat them to their sweet ways and poured some sugar (and baking soda) on a stick and called it a snack. Yes, today we’re talking about dalgona (달고나) – the retro Korean street food reminiscent of honeycomb: what it is, what it isn’t, and what exactly you can make from it. We’re also sharing our interview with KyoungSoo Hong, owner of the incredibly popular dalgona café ㅊa (pronounced ‘cha’), and his old friend and interpreter Irene Kim. Also known as Kenny, he shares with us the story of dalgona, his café, his opinions on the recent ‘dalgona’ coffee trend, and how ㅊa is making a name for itself. ㅊa was also gracious enough to send us our own dalgona-making kit, which you can watch via our Instagram!
ㅊa & Its Unique Dalgona
ㅊa, pronounced ‘cha’ and meaning ‘tea’ in Korean– opened in summer 2019, and has very much been a labour of love for owner and creator Kenny Hong. When presented with the question “Why dalgona?” he simply replies, “Because I like it!”
Dalgona is not a new trend. In fact, it became popular as a candy made and sold on the street in 1980s Korea. However, it has seen a resurgence recently thanks to the current ‘newtro’ trend (뉴트로), aka new retro, and the supermassive ‘dalgona coffee’ viral internet challenge.
In order to make the perfect dalgona for his café, Kenny worked hard creating a seemingly endless number of batches of the sweet stuff and feeding it to his friends for judgement. The result of his toiling was a more flavourful “souffle dalgona”. It’s soft and airy, unlike the harder and slightly chewy street snack, and melts perfectly into the drinks, in which he uses the dalgona to replace sugar or syrup. To continue on this note, Kenny explained, “…that’s why I’m using dalgona inside the milk. Because just sugar is too sweet. You know, that black sugar trend? Everyone is just using plain sugar! Dalgona is the same, but it also has a unique taste.”
And he’s right, of course. His dalgona, which is sweet with a slightly bitter aftertaste, matches just right with coffee, but especially with the milk teas at ㅊa. They are themselves unique – brewed using the same method as one makes a shot of coffee, by grinding and tamping the leaves before extracting a “tea espresso”.
As well as matching his drinks, the dalgona that Kenny created is just right for topping and incorporating into different desserts. Whether it’s poured over scones or madeleines, or crumbled into the bottom of a pudding, the dalgona that the mastermind behind ㅊa worked so hard on is a perfect match for everything he intended it for.
What Would Kenny Eat?
How can you possibly choose the best item on the menu when they’re all mouth-wateringly perfect? Well, here’s the thing. If you’re the owner and you’ve tried it all a million times over, it’ll be pretty easy. Of course, the best for Kenny is dalgona. But secondly?
“Secondly, I like the scones!”
That’s right, you heard it from the master himself. The scone is the best choice for an afternoon treat or coffee date, but you may want to keep it for yourself. And thanks to ㅊa’s open layout, customers are able to watch the cooks pour the melted dalgona over the scone’s not-too-sweet empty canvas. It’s mesmerizing– almost hard to look away. When first poured, the sticky sugar appears fluffy and soft, but as it awaits the mouth of a hungry visitor, the orange blanket starts to harden.
“Dalgona is already very sweet,” Kenny clarifies. “And most bread already has that sweet taste. So, I made the madeline and scone with a new recipe.” Can you guess what it is? No added sugar. Just mix the bread mix with the dalgona and it comes out exactly as it should. “Some foreigners see the scone and ask… ‘Wait is that cheese?'”.
(I mean, I don’t either of us would complain if it was.)
Like most places around the world, you can be slapped in the face with how American the café and restaurant options are in Korea. Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, and Burger King are all hot choices for a weekend out on the town. It’s not that they’re bad per se, but where are the Korean franchise options?
“There are too many American brands in Korea,” Kenny says with a stern face. “We don’t even recognize it. We just like it, but that’s the kind of culture I want to attack.”
Attacking Starbucks and McDonalds? That’s a pretty big plan. But Kenny is confident ㅊa can overcome it. “Think about it,” he says with anticipation. “It’s a uniquely Korean brand. It’s more interesting. Everyone wants to eat dalgona, even foreigners who don’t know it yet.”
Kenny goes on to discuss the history of the café market. The main drink of choice around the world is coffee. He points out that coffee is closely associated with Western culture, despite its roots in South America and Africa. “But tea,” Kenny jumps in. “Tea is the Asian culture. Starbucks isn’t original with their drinks, but they do make a package. They sell a culture– Asian brand makers are just selling beverages as they are. Tea is culture from Asia; it’s marketable as a drink and a culture. That’s why I’m making this brand.
We’re all in agreement that the coffee in most places is less than impressive. He particularly emphasizes Gongcha, the famous milk tea chain, and how it isn’t necessarily promoting culture through design. He reiterates that we often spend money on things that are straightforward and familiar when we could be spending it on something more akin to an experience.
“I wanted to make a Korean milk tea,” he emphasizes. “So, that’s why we’re just using such a candy; the Korean sugar cubes.”
You heard it here first, ladies and gents. ㅊa is an all authentic Korean brand and there’s not much else out there like it. We can’t say we disagree.
Debunking Dalgona Myths
Anyone who’s been on the internet in the last three months is sure to have heard of dalgona, but maybe not in the right way.
In recent months, the ‘dalgona coffee’ trend has swept the internet. People all over the world have been whipping coffee powder and sugar with water, pouring it atop milk and naming it ‘dalgona coffee’. If something about this doesn’t make sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t make sense. This isn’t how you make dalgona, and it sure doesn’t taste like it either. As we learned while interviewing Kenny and reading The Soul of Seoul’s article on the trend, the reason this came about is because of Korean actor Jung Il-woo randomly trying it once and proclaiming that reminds him of dalgona. Thus, the ‘dalgona coffee’ was born.
But we’re here, along with ㅊa, to let you know about the real dalgona. Originating as a street snack in the 1970s, dalgona (달고나), also called bbopki (뽑기), is made by melting sugar to a light brown color and afterward sprinkling in baking soda, causing it to bubble and form a sweet honeycomb. Originally, it was made to be a circle with a fun shape, such as a star, pressed into the centre. As a game, the consumer would try to eat around the centre shape without breaking it, and if they succeeded they would receive another piece of dalgona for free.
As for ㅊa’s dalgona, it’s a slight twist on the old favourite. To those who have eaten real dalgona before, it has a familiar taste, but is a little different. Still made by adding baking soda to melted sugar, Kenny created his dalgona to be slightly more bitter than the traditional candy, and fluffier too. He also uses it in a non-traditional way, as it’s usually eaten rather than melted into a beverage.
But, true to form, these aren’t the only ways that Kenny is upping his dalgona game. He tells us, “There are too many coffee brands. I know that, and I know that they cannot handmake the dalgona. It’s impossible.” By creating his own dalgona recipe and making it in-store, he stands out from the others, stating that “very few bakeries are making the traditional dalgona – they just buy it.”
Maybe this is why ㅊa has gained such fame around the world. With dalgona fans across the globe and its popularity growing because of the social media trend, ㅊa has also received a lot of international attention. Kenny explained to us “I’ve had so many interviews in Japan and on Korean broadcasting. It started from last December. There are also fans from Southeast Asia and Vietnam.” But he also explained that a lot of his efforts go towards debunking the myth of dalgona that the internet has caused, stating, “At that time the dalgona trend started, but it was also the wrong dalgona, so I want to fix that. […] Foreigners see the fake dalgona and think that this is dalgona.” Now, people come from around the world, both because of the trend and not, to try what ㅊa has to offer and, because of this, get to discover the real dalgona.
More than Tea
One of the most fascinating things about ㅊa, for us, is the stylization and graphic design of both the menu and the interior. We’re sure you’ve already picked up on that just by reading the name; this café is certainly a unique one.
The word 차 in Korean, or ㅊa by way of this café, is a combination of both Korean and English letters. Literally, the word means ‘tea’ in various Asian languages, including Korean. So, why bother mixing the two?
“I want to make a global brand,” Kenny elaborates. “Maybe if I go abroad, everyone is just using English. In Korea, they just use Korean.” He stops his sentence short to usher us over near the main door, brushing past fixated customers and gathering sneers and annoyed glances. Little do they know that he’s the guy who runs the place. When we finally arrive in front of the cashier, he eagerly gestures to the menu. Again– it’s a combination of Korean and English lettering.
“I mean… you can read it!” He exclaims loudly in English. “The brand is minimalist, too. I don’t like having two lines on a menu– one with Korean and one with English. That’s why I mixed it. Everyone can read it, but foreigners can still recognize that it’s from a Korean brand.”
And the interior? One could use the word ‘harmonious’. Everything is open, per Kenny’s request, and muted with traditional Korean hues of white and soft brown. The palette echoes of Joseon-era clothing and thatched-roof houses that are still embraced in the peninsula’s sleepiest corners. Even the staff have traditional uniforms of simple hanbok design. As history lovers, discovering that this was a key goal of ㅊa, to promote a local yet minimalist aesthetic… well, needless to say, we fell further in love.
From One Business Owner to Others…
With such a strong, clear vision for his brand and company, we figured that Kenny was the perfect person to give advice to others looking to start their own business. When asked what advice he would give to future entrepreneurs, he emphasised that passion and vision are essential.
“It’s important that you have to create something that you’re passionate about. In any field of business, you won’t be interested in coming in to work if you don’t care about the product. […] Have your own vision, your own brand, and brand it well.”
Kenny also stressed the importance of creating new ideas and experiences that people haven’t had before. Comparing ㅊa, its products and interior to other cafés, he attributes his success to his originality. The personal dalgona recipe and original use of it in his menu, the utilisation of the baristas’ workstation as a bar where customers can sit and drink, and the communal seating style; all of these features contribute to the unique attraction of ㅊa.
Future of ㅊa
Where’s this all headed? Part of the future of ㅊa was brought into the conversation when we noticed a shy-faced girl topping scones with dalgona. Her head was turned down, along with her eyes, as our camera lens peered into her comfort zone. She was a new trainee, they explained, and she was nervous that we were videotaping her first time spreading dalgona over the scones.
“Everyone is re-training, actually,” Kenny says as he notices her discomfort. “This week we’re going to open another branch in Ikseon-dong (익선동).”
Only this branch has a twist. Dalgona will not be the main ingredient, but rather makgeolli (막걸리), a milky rice wine that’s notorious for its hangover headaches. Kenny says that it will be the focus of the new location and that the white color of the drink will match the interior, just as this branch succeeded in doing. The name is always the same, but the main feature is different. The key food will be a makgeolli bread, which makes our mouths water the second we hear it.
“My purpose is to open every branch… and everything has changed,” he laughs. “Actually, I have a franchise already in Japan. In Korea, maybe I’ll have four new locations soon. In the end there may be ten, with the newest one opening next month.” He proceeds to list the names of possible locations, all of which are hot-spots for both tourists and locals. It seems like business is booming.
“I’ll open a Vietnam branch and I have a branch already in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore with my partners so maybe they’ll open my brand soon.” Then he says what we’re all expecting to hear. “Now COVID-19 is very serious, so maybe it won’t be easy. But we will open it with partners in East Asia, Europe and America.”
“America is always on his mind,” his interpreter chirps in.
A small grin spreads across his face. “I see in Brooklyn… a really nice place.”
What’s really special about ㅊa isn’t the handmade dalgona, unique dessert and drink menu, or eye-catching interior design. It’s what lies behind the heart of founder Kenny Hong, and his vision for what Korea can mean to the world.
ㅊa is, simply put, a truly good brand. And although the fake dalgona trend is likely to end within the month, ㅊa will keep inviting you in with each new branch, menu item, and vision that it brings our way.