‘Squid Game’ Turned a Korean Childhood Snack Into an Overnight Hit at NYC Restaurants
The Netflix smash hit has Korean-American restaurateurs clamoring to bring back the nostalgic candy and the games associated with it
by Caroline Shin Nov 9, 2021, 4:01pm EST
Less than a month after Squid Game topped Netflix’s global charts with 111 million viewers, the dalgona candy featured on the show continues to have its moment in New York City restaurants. The retro Korean children’s street snack, which is made from sugar and baking soda, is popping up everywhere in various reincarnations: as a latte topping, ice cream flavor, doughnut glaze, and naturally, as on the nine-episode drama, a little brittle disc stamped with various shapes.
In the third episode of Squid Game, players have 10 minutes to chisel out a design — a circle, triangle, star, or umbrella — from a fragile piece of dalgona candy or face assassination. From the 1970s through the 1990s, dalgona vendors were part of South Korea’s landscape, planted in front of elementary schools and equipped with a portable stove. School children would make a game of removing a stamped design in the middle of the cookie-shaped candy.
The snack was commonly called ppopgi (“extract” in Korean) and dalgona (“it’s sweet”). The viral dalgona coffee got its name when the hosts of a January 2020 episode of a South Korean TV program, Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant, witnessed the transformation of a dark, grainy coffee liquid turn into a swirly, shimmery sludge at a Macau cafe, and cried out, “Isn’t it just like dalgona?! Yeah, ppopgi!” Seconds later, the “달고나 커피” (“Dalgona coffee”) chyron popped up, and kicked off the global obsession — and cemented its name.
Mochi Mochi Donut’s set of five dalgona candy cutouts. Afternoon
Back in the East Village, on Halloween night, restaurant employees dressed as pink soldiers stood guard over tables of guests breaking their dalgona candies. It was the second day of Nowon’s Squid Game-themed dinner featuring dishes from the show like tteokbokki and steak. The dessert course was a collaboration with Noona’s Ice Cream: a ppopgi lollipop sticking out of vanilla ice cream tinted with squid ink and studded with dalgona chunks. Its dark gray color “mimics the dystopia” of the show, explains Noona’s owner Hannah Bae. She’s planning a November 11 release of this flavor online.
For Nowon owner Jae Lee, the show’s hype piqued his imagination to host another one of his buzzy pop-ups. “I didn’t want it to be just about the food,” he says. “We had to get in that spirit.” Nearly 140 guests nabbed the $90 tickets, and packed the dining room where employees dressed up and music from the show was played.
But Nowon’s dalgona wasn’t made in Lee’s kitchen. Despite needing only two ingredients — sugar and baking soda — dalgona requires delicate sugar work. And that handiwork has fallen upon pastry chef and Oddfellows alum Justin Chen, who went from not knowing the candy existed in September to keeping up with a running client list that now includes Nowon, Kimbap Lab, and the newly opened 8282.
“I’ve had at least 50 failed attempts,” says Chen. “Dalgona is finicky.” The sugar burned black. There were wonky shapes. They spontaneously cracked. The imprint was imperceptible.
That precision work is what commands a high price at Koreatown bakery Mochi Mochi Donut. A single piece of candy costs $13, and a set with five shapes is $65. But the price point hasn’t deterred Squid Game fans, apparently. Since dalgona’s debut in mid-October, sales have held strong at 75 orders per week, according to Nicholas Jacobs, the manager of the store’s parent company, Afternoon.
Simon Kim, owner of Michelin-starred Cote Steakhouse, has been down this road before, selling out of $18 bowls of jjapaguri made famous by Parasite. Sales were cut short by the city-mandated shutdown within a month of the dish’s debut, so he had no idea how successful the dish could have been. Still, Kim is jumping on the dalgona buzz with the launch of “Squid Game Week” in late November, when Cote’s flower logo will be carved into the candies. After dinner, every table can opt in to play the game and win a shot of premium liquor. “And if you don’t win, there’s gonna be dire consequences,” he jokes.
The various iterations of dalgona have proven to be successful even if chefs recreating the hit dessert stray from the Squid Game storyline. In October, Mochi Mochi Donut topped off its mochi doughnuts with shards of dalgona, and they became an instant bestseller, averaging 200 orders per day across five NYC stores compared to 50 to 100 for all other flavors, according to store manager Nicholas Jacobs.
The same goes for Croffle House in Flushing and Noona’s Ice Cream, which have offered dalgona long before anyone could see the Squid Game storm coming. The bestsellers at Noona’s include turmeric honeycomb and dalgona coffee flavors, and at Croffle House, it’s the iced dalgona latte with ppopgi chunks. “All the adults that I have coming into my store — because there are a lot of older Koreans in my area — they all know what ppopgi is because they grew up eating it,” says William Han, Croffle House’s co-founder.
Nostalgia is another factor driving the candy’s popularity. Memories of playing ppopgi have long been pressed into the hearts of many Korean-American restaurateurs, and Squid Game finally gave them the collective license to delve in.
“Going to school and hitting that ppopgi street vendor was probably the most exciting pastime,” says Cote’s Kim, who played the game while growing up in Seoul in the early 1990s. “Being able to share that immense joy, the cultural reference, and my childhood memory with New Yorkers — it’s a great pleasure.” Trying to chisel the restaurant’s flower-shaped logo out of hardened sugar, less so.