The most challenging part of eating hotteok is the waiting, chef Judy Joo said. It takes a few minutes for the hot sugar encased in the crisp, chewy pancakes to go from molten, burn-your-mouth-off goo to warm, sticky goodness.

As a child, she visited stalls in Seoul that sold the Korean treat during the winter. “It was torture, standing there in the cold” with the joyful scent of sugar and cinnamon filling the air, she said.

These days, Joo, 47, a chef and cookbook author, makes her own hotteok at home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She combines bread flour with sweet rice flour, and stuffs each pancake with a filling of muscovado, peanuts, cinnamon and salt, then fries the plump rounds until they’re a brilliant golden brown.

Hotteok (pronounced somewhere between HO-tuck and HO-duck) comes in both sweet and savory versions, from mozzarella to matcha, though the cinnamon-and-sugar filling is among the most popular nowadays. At Jinjuu, the Korean restaurant in London that Joo ran until 2019, one of her top-selling dishes was a Snickers-inspired hotteok, with a filling of salted caramel, chocolate ganache, peanut butter and praline.

Joo isn’t the only Korean chef experimenting with hotteok. At Mokbar, in New York, Esther Choi fills hers with pork belly. Sammy Pak has sold one with ham and cheese at his pop-up, Sammy’s, in Oakland, California. Frankseoul, a South Korean cafe chain that opened a Frisco, Texas, location in 2020, offers Nutella-filled hotteok. (Trader Joe’s began selling its own “sweet cinnamon filled Korean pancakes” last year.)

Despite all that innovation, JinJoo Lee, 55, who writes Korean-food blog Kimchimari, said the dish feels more nostalgic to people of her generation, who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. For them, it’s reminiscent of a time when there was little foreign influence on South Korean foods, as that country was under authoritarian rule.

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Yet hotteok itself is a product of outside forces. It was brought to the country by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, as an adaptation of bing. The sweet variation became popular in the 1950s and ’60s, when U.S. foreign aid after the Korean War introduced inexpensive wheat and sugar to the country. Hotteok was cheap to make and sell — convenient for a time when South Korea’s economy was struggling.

Today’s young Koreans may not have grown up with hotteok, Lee said. In fact, many food stalls that sold hotteok are now gone, as the government severely restricted street vendors during the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, claiming that the stalls made the city less walkable.

But recently, as those young people have reached adulthood, many have rediscovered hotteok, she said. “It is making a comeback.”

“With the popularity of K-dramas and K-pop, there is an interest in Korean food,” said John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. (Members of Korean pop band BTS recently posted online photos of themselves eating hotteok.) “Both the K-pop stars and Korean drama stars, they are constantly eating Korean food.”

At Jua, a Korean tasting-menu restaurant in Manhattan, chef Hoyoung Kim serves hotteok as the final course, pan-fried to order and lacquered with a syrup made of muscovado. He wanted to show that the humble dish could be part of a fine-dining experience.

“It’s more than a street food,” Kim, 36, said. “It’s a Korean soul food.”

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Recipe: Hotteok (Sweet Filled Pancakes)

Total time: 45 minutes, plus 3 hours’ rising

Yield: 10 hotteok

For the dough:

1 1/2 cups (360 milliliters) whole milk

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 packet (7 grams) instant yeast

1 1/2 cups (225 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting (see Tip below)

1 cup (150 grams) sweet rice flour

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Vegetable oil, for greasing and frying

For the filling:

1/2 cup (125 grams) firmly packed muscovado or dark brown sugar

1/2 cup (75 grams) roasted unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1. Make the dough: In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk to about 105 degrees. (If you don’t have a thermometer, heat the milk until it feels like a warm bath — hot but not scalding). Remove from heat, stir in the granulated sugar and yeast, and whisk until the sugar has dissolved. Let stand in a warm place for 3 to 5 minutes, or until bubbling, to activate the yeast.

2. In a large bowl, combine the bread flour, rice flour, cornstarch and salt. Slowly stir in the warm milk mixture until a sticky dough forms. Grease your hands with a little oil to prevent sticking and shape the dough into a ball. Transfer the dough ball to another large bowl greased lightly with vegetable oil, and cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Punch it down, cover again and let it rise until doubled in size again, about 1 1/2 hours more.

3. Meanwhile, make the filling: In a small bowl, mix together the muscovado sugar, peanuts, cinnamon and salt. Muscovado sugar has a tendency to clump — use your fingers to squish any clumps.

4. After the dough has risen a second time, dust a clean work surface with bread flour and turn the dough out onto it. Dust the top of the dough with some more flour and knead it a few times. Shape the dough into a fat, long log.

5. Cut the dough into 10 equal pieces, shape each piece into a ball, set on the floured work surface, and cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking, press a dough ball into a 4-inch-wide disk using your fingertips. Make sure the disk is uniformly thick so the finished pancake will be evenly filled.

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6. Put the disk in your hand and slightly cup it. Spoon 2 packed tablespoons of the filling into the center of the disk. Seal the disk closed by wrapping the dough around the filling and pinching the edges together at the top. Once sealed, reshape gently to form a ball, set with the seam side down on the floured work surface and cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining dough balls and filling. (You may have some leftover filling. Sprinkle it on buttered toast or roti. Combine it with peeled, sliced apples and bake it into a pie or crumble.)

7. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high. Put 2 or 3 dough balls seam-side down in the skillet and immediately flatten them with a spatula to a diameter of about 4 inches. Reduce the heat to medium and fry the pancakes until golden brown and crisp on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip them and cook until the other side is golden brown and the hotteok feel slightly springy to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes more.

8. Transfer the hotteok to a wire rack or paper towel-lined plate when done. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, wiping the skillet clean and adding fresh oil for each batch. Let the hotteok cool slightly before serving; it’s easy to burn yourself in your haste to gobble these up, as the insides are hot and oozing. Any leftovers can be cooled completely and frozen in an airtight container for up to a month. Reheat in a 350-degree oven, and refry in a pan with a little oil to crisp them again.

Tips:

You can substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour, using 1 2/3 cups (225 grams) all-purpose flour.

(Recipe from Judy Joo, adapted by Priya Krishna)