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Posted : 2014-06-15 16:29
Updated : 2014-06-17 14:32

Chef creates new role for 'tteok' - dessert

Chef Sin Yong-il stands at the entrance of his cafe with the open kitchen behind him in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.
/ Korea Times photo by Kim Ji-soo

By Kim Ji-soo

As one enters cafe "ha:p" in Cheongdam-dong, a nutty smell from the oven wafts into one's olfactory senses like rain in a desert.

"It's the ‘yakgwa' baking," said Sin Yong-il, 42, owner and chef of the rice cake cafe in southern Seoul.

The traditional Korean yakgwa — made of flour, sesame oil, honey, rice wine and cinnamon — is fried, but he steams it in an oven.

"I wanted to rid the thinking that yakgwa is fried," Sin said.

The "jeungpeyon" or leavened rice cake individually wrapped at the rice cake cafe "ha:p."

Yakgwa is a delicious traditional Korean dessert anyway one makes it, but the smell from the oven and Sin's steadfast performance in putting forth a new type or new style of rice cakes turbo-heightened the anticipation of how it would taste.


Sin studied confectionary and bakery at Ecole Lenotre in the early 2000s because he wanted to take rice cake culture to a new level. Rice cakes or "tteok" are ubiquitous in Korea, in easy-to-unwrap plastic foil and often eaten as an alternative to a full meal.

In the cozy cafe and open kitchen that ha:p is, Sin's rice cakes are made in small, pop-in-the-mouth sizes. They range from "injeolmi," or the cube-shaped rice cake coated with bean flour, to "jeungpyeon," or leavened rice cakes; to "juak" of Gaeseong — the rice cakes that he likes the most. Sin adheres to the traditional method of making these rice cakes because simply, "They taste better that way."

He does use the steam oven, however, to make sure that the jeungpyeon is cooked three times at different temperatures in the oven before being steamed at 100 degrees to get it right.

The seasonal "Ran" set, which shapes the ingredients such as apricot and chestnut into their original shape after mincing or boiling them down.

For example, bite into the jeungpyeon filled with cheese, one may remain stuck in a sweet palatable second wondering whether it is sticky rice or chewy bread, and then instantly wanting one more. For the injeolmi, he uses a machine that brings a vertical movement to give it its stickiness with air in between. The premium juak made of sticky rice, flour and salt, is mixed and fried, then dipped in honey or grain syrup.


Because of the size, the rice cakes feel light on the stomach. The wrappings are stylish, with boxes and white "bojagi" or traditional Korean wrapping clothes used to wrap the rice cake sets. The average price per cake is around 2,000 won. The burly looking chef dispelled questions of whether the rice cakes were too expensive.

"Those who say so are denying the diversity in rice cakes and lowering the standard of Korean culture," Sin said. "Why are we willing to pay 2,500 won for a macaron, but not for a rice cake? It's cultural toadyism," Sin said.

Sin said that investment is needed to take the rice cake culture higher, including investment in such a price. He said that while Korea is seeing a development in its bakery culture, where the producers are preempting the taste or the preferences of the customers, the rice cake shops in Korea are in the doldrums.
The white "bojagi" that is used for wrapping rice cakes.
/ Courtesy of cafe ha:p

Sin has always enjoyed eating tteok.


"I was crazy for yakgwa. My mother would also slip them to me in my room when ancestral rites were over," he said.

But he went to college to major in physical education at Yonsei University and then worked at a conglomerate, Kolon, for a year before embarking on a path to food and cooking.

He then worked at the well-known rice cake shop Jiwhaja, founded by royal cuisine food expert Hwang Hye-seong, for a year before heading to France to train in confectionary and bakery at Ecole Lenotre. Prior to founding his own rice cake shop, he worked as a head chef at actor Bae Yong-joon's Korean restaurant Gosire in Tokyo, the Korean embassy in Switzerland and at the Korean restaurant Poom in Seoul.

Then at the age of 40, when he thought he needed to strike out on his own, he went back to rice cakes.


He initially thought about "gateau de riz," which means rice cake in French. But he decided on the name "ha:p" after thinking deep about his goal of elevating the rice cake to another level.

While first and foremost tantalized by the taste of the rice cakes, Sin reaches into his training, his memories of food as well as insight from customers.

"I had this customer who walked into our shop just from London. He was a student who happened to find that we made juak that his grandmother made for him," said Sin. The customer liked it to the extent that he once brought his grandmother's version for Sin to taste.

"His grandmother's version was rough in design and it was pan-fried, but I liked it," Sin said.

Another reason he adheres to the traditional method is to "undo" the distortions that contemporary Korean history has wrought on traditional Korean culture including the rice cake.

"I really want to say this. Because of the interruptions in our contemporary history, the Japanese colonialism and the import of Western culture, Korea is not well cognizant of what our tradition was like even in rice cake. I want to bring that back," Sin said.

The conviction to good taste, the stylish presentation and a notion that tteok is readily edible as an afternoon dessert has put Sin's name on Seoul's culinary map. The cafe is also well-known for its "patbingsu" or the shaved ice topped with baked red beans and rice cake, the Asian-pear drinks and the yuzu tea.

In the past three years since he founded ha:p, he has three shops including two in-house at the Hyundai Department Stores in Apgujeong-dong and Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. The department store shops are named "Komul" and focus on the sticky cube-shaped cakes that are the injeolmi.

He moved his store twice in the past three years, saying that he has seen ups and downs of the world in his dealings with landlords and working with skeptics about the price. But Sin has bigger plans.

These days, he hopes to make tasty tteok, but also those that inspire the other rice cake shops.

"I have made my recipes available in cooking magazines. My goal is that more rice cake shops will have menus like ours, because when they think our rice cake is good, they will be moved by it," Sin said.

When the others move, Sin said he in turn will be challenged or inspired once again.


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