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What is the Origin of Dalgona Coffee?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

Dalgona coffee was all the craze during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and reached peak popularity roughly between April-May 2020. It was something of a flash in the pan but is a nice treat for those who enjoy bittersweet beverages. But where did it come from?

Dalgona coffee originated in either Macau or South Korea. Jung Il-woo, a Korean actor, named it after a popular South Korean snack that was invented to fill the gap created when the US Army left Korea in the 1950s. It is defined by its preparation style more than ingredients.

Where does it come from?

There are a large number of variations of this beverage around the world, but the one that took the world by storm in 2020 was from Macau – an autonomous region of China that has its own special rules and culture.

Fun fact: Gambling is illegal in the mainland, but it’s legal in Macau, which can cause the mainland citizens some annoyance. Hong Kong, likewise, has/had different rules, but that was part of the “1 country; 2 systems” approach to easing HK back into the fold.

No such luck for Macau. Anyway, the beverage became popular there and was commented on by a Korean actor, making it become crazy popular in Asia, which then spread through the internet like wildfire.

Where is the name from?

There are two versions to the story:

Version 1

When visiting Macau, a popular Korean actor, Jung Il-woo, tried the beverage and commented that it tasted like a popular Korean snack which was then Anglicanized, as the internet will do, transforming it into “Dalgona”. 

The Korean, pre-anglicized term is apparently ppopgi, which translates to “honeycomb toffee”. It is not a beverage, but Il-woo commented on the beverage as tasting similar to the street food.

Version 2

A South Korean YouTube channel made it popular, and it eventually went viral thanks to TikTok.

What is the thing it is named after?

It’s actually a popular, sweet candy commonly sold on the streets of South Korea. This is partially why it blew up in Korean culture, and Korea has strong soft power. We may not notice it too much, but all of Asia pays attention to what’s happening in Korea, largely thanks to Kpop (music) and Korean dramas, which are all the rage.

Basically, this was something that everyone in Korea could relate to, which made it go viral.

It appeared on the scene in the 1950s, just after the Korean war. Apparently, during the war itself, the US Soldiers would give sweets to children, creating a demand for it. Since the war took its toll, the parents were left trying to adapt by making something equally sweet that could make their kids happy.

Thus, Dalgona, the snack, was invented. This is also why it was such a staple back then – it was cheap, easy, and ubiquitous in that post-war time.

The snack itself is a crunchy toffee-like candy that is made using brown sugar, corn syrup, baking soda, and vinegar.

If you’re interested in making the original yourself, here is a video that shows one version of it. It’s the closest I could find, and even simpler than the list of ingredients above.

Why did it become so popular?

Again, Korean culture is very prominent in Asia, capturing a massive audience, particularly in China. Their Korean dramas and Kpop have a very strong influence on the surrounding countries, and those countries, in turn, are also around the world.

In the second origin, it seems that it leads back to TikTok, a Chinese video platform that is popular all around the world. As such, it makes sense that Korean culture would explode on TikTok, pushing it around the world.

But here’s the video that apparently broke it through the first version. Note: it is all in Korean, but this is the format of shows they really enjoy, and you can get a sense of what mainstream Asia is about.

And here’s that same star demonstrating how to make Dalgona coffee from his home, presumably during COVID lockdown.

How can you make Dalgona coffee?

  • 1 Tbsp instant coffee, sugar, and hot water (1 tbsp each is the standard; equal parts)
  • 1 cup milk (your choice what kind)

Combine the coffee, sugar, and water together.

Whip for 3-4 minutes until the consistency is as desired. You can use electric mixers, frothers, or just a whisk by hand if you have the will to do so.

When the desired consistency is reached, spoon it onto your cup of milk.

Tip: It’s better if you drink it without stirring, as you can choose how much of the foam to take in with the milk. This makes a nice contrast between the sweet and bitter foam and the creamy milk. If you stir it, then you might as well skip the whipping because it becomes sweet coffee milk. No bueno – just my two cents.

TL;DR

It came from Asia, either Macau (an autonomous state of China) or South Korea. The first story is it was popularized after Korean star, Jung Il-woo, christened it “dalgona” after a popular Korean street snack of the same name because they taste similar. Another version of the story is that it was popularized by a South Korean YouTube channel.

Whatever the case, it seems their soft power was enough to make it go viral, globally.

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