On the way home, just a few blocks from my place, among several other street vendors, there is a food cart that sells hoddoek. The cart looks like this:
From down the street, I can see the cart glowing softly. It's the type of beacon you want to see when you're exhausted--you can find it without having to search too hard, but it won't aggravate your headache. There's usually a small crowd around it waiting for their snack, which is comforting because a flow of business means the cart will probably stick around for a while.
Then there's the vendor herself, and she's as warm and welcoming up close as her cart's glow is from a distance. The first time I went there, I asked if I could take a picture of her and her establishment, which became the photo seen above. It's a shame the photo didn't turn out better. Initially, she was smiling and shooting a peace sign, but my camera was having trouble focusing. By the time I actually took the photo, she thought it was already over, which is why the shot is a bit awkward. Because she's a busy woman, I didn't want to bother her to "pose" again. So what we get is a strange transition shot between flashing a peace sign and going back to work.
Okay, so I know this is a snack blog, and I have written several paragraphs now without really getting to the snack part in any detail. I'm a horrible snack blogger. I'll probably lose my audience to all of the other snack blogs out there, and I deserve it for grossly ignoring the actual snack up until this point.
So let's talk about the snack. Here's maybe the simplest way to describe hoddoek: it's an unhealthy, small pancake with brown sugar and some other sweet stuff in the middle. It starts as a little dough ball, and then the vendor flattens it on the griddle with a round, metal plate until it is the desired thickness. The hoddoek fries for a minute or so, and then it's ready to eat. I'm not sure if most people get theirs in a cup, but that's how she always gives them to me.
Now I don't usually believe in love at first bite, but...ugh. That pun is not good. Hoddoek, on the other hand, is very good, and I should show it respect by cutting that pun short. I know I compared hoddoek to a pancake before, but calling it a pancake is not very accurate (even though the English translation really is "Chinese Pancake" I guess? At least that's what I've heard). I mean, it's shaped like a pancake, and it's cooked on a griddle like a pancake, but it only vaguely tastes like a pancake. Hoddoek's consistency is a nice middle ground between chewy and moist. The outside has a bit of crispiness from the griddle, which contrasts nicely with the almost-gooey brown sugar filling. I'm careful to say almost-gooey rather than just gooey, because a truly gooey filling wouldn't be nearly as appealing as the "near gooeyness" that's actually present. When I think of something gooey, I picture something like Nickelodeon Gak (for an unappetizing example) or maybe something that would stick to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter (for a more appetizing example). The filling of the hoddoek does kind of sink into your mouth like something truly gooey might, but it's a bit too solid--and lacks any real stickiness--to cling like a gooey snack would.
The flavor of the filling is decidedly sweet, but not in a kid's-candy-stomach-ache way. I feel weird saying this about street food, but it almost has a refined taste to it. I'm not saying the sweetness is subtle, or like something you'd find in an organic cookie at Whole Foods. Maybe what I mean is that there's something complex about it. There's some sort of almost savory undertone that makes hoddoek more than just junk food. Part of the street sophistication must be due to the few sesame seeds that are mixed in. The sesame brings the sweetness down a notch, and adds another layer to the snack--it's not like you just shoved a spoonful of brown sugar in your mouth before your mom catches you when you were supposed to be "saving your appetite" for dinner. (Did anyone else ever eat plain brown sugar just to get their sugar fix as a kid? Please tell me I'm not alone in this.) But beyond the sesame seeds, there's still something I can't put my finger on. Oh well.
Anyway, hoddoek is the perfect snack for a late, cold night. It's especially good after working all day, because there's nothing healthy about it, so I feel like I'm treating myself after a long day of putting up with kids. For anyone who visits me in Korea, I promise some free hoddoek anytime after sunset (I realize I should have mentioned this earlier, because it contributes to the point I was making about how hoddoek is the perfect after-work snack, but the hoddoek cart doesn't come out until it's getting dark).