Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Reinvigorates Dalgona Candy

Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Reinvigorates Dalgona Candy

One of Maddy Park’s earliest memories of street food was when vendors set up a portable stove outside her elementary school in Seoul, South Korea, to sell a candy for about a dime. It was part sweet treat, part game.

Candy makers melted sugar and frothed it up with a pinch of baking soda to make this dalgona candy, Ms. Park recalled. They then pressed the mixture flat and pushed shapes like a circle, triangle, square, star or umbrella into the center. Ms. Park’s classmates determinedly tried to pick out the stamped shape using a needle without breaking it — a game called ppopgi. If the children successfully removed the shape from the brittle candy, they won another treat for free.

“Dalgona was one of the cheapest, unhealthiest, yet the most addictive gamble for 7-year-old me,” said Ms. Park, now 28 and living in Downtown Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ms. Park is one of many Koreans whose memories of dalgona candy, also called ppopgi, have surfaced thanks to the release last month of “Squid Game” on Netflix. The fictional series follows a group of cash-strapped people willing to die playing childhood games for a chance to win a jackpot. Episode 3 is all about ppopgi.

But because of the popularity of “Squid Game,” the candy has made a comeback as a retro, nostalgic snack, Mr. Park said. “For some of these young Koreans, I don’t think they consciously think it’s Korean candy, but it’s a way to connect to their history that they don’t want to necessarily do in a history book,” he said.

Social media has shepherded its leap to worldwide fame, introducing the candy to people outside South Korea.

The name dalgona became more familiar to Americans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic because of the popularity of the whipped coffee also known as dalgona. The beverage gained fame in January 2020 after the actor Jung Il-woo tried it in Macau on “Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant,” a South Korean television show. He said it reminded him of the dalgona candy, unofficially naming the drink in the process. It then feverishly spread to South Korea’s coffee shops and eventually made its way to the United States.

Some people, though, say dalgona candy’s spread through social media can divorce it from its cultural significance. “Dalgona candy is representative of fetishizing K-pop and K-dramas, and seeing one thing and saying, ‘Wow I’ve discovered Korean culture,’” said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and expert on race and racism in Hollywood, “when in fact the candy, the cinema, the television series, all of these things, have been in existence.”

Fans love the candy’s blend of bitter, nutty and sweet tastes. “The flavor, for some reason, stays with you,” said Annie Yoo, 46, of Düsseldorf, Germany.

Ms. Yoo’s most vivid memories of South Korea are those of foods like dalgona candy, as she was only 6 years old when she immigrated to the United States. She remembers the dirt roads she took to get to the dalgona street vendors under their tarps.

“I really miss that candy,” she added. “In the midst of all the stuff we were going through, you barely get any treats. It was really magical.”

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