Once, when the chef Junghyun Park was young, his cousin brought a piece of fresh honeycomb over to his house in Seoul.
Mr. Park’s mother cherished it, as fresh honey was coveted for its health properties in South Korea, and doled it out only when someone got sick. Stirred into a mug of hot water with a little ginger, the honey made fine tea. “We were drinking it almost like medicine,” Mr. Park said.
Perhaps no Korean dish represents the value of honey more than the ancient dessert yakgwa, a deep-fried honey cookie soaked in syrup. Yakgwa (“yak” means medicine and “gwa” means confection) is more than a vessel for coveted sweetness. It connects generations and tells the story of Korea’s reverence for tradition and optimism for the future.
Enjoyed since the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), these treats have seen a resurgence in popularity in South Korea and beyond, thanks in part to videos on YouTube and TikTok, and Korean dramas like the Netflix series “Alchemy of Souls.”
South Korea’s “Generation MZ” (a hybrid of millennials and Gen Zers) are the drivers of this new fixation on the past, more specifically young Koreans who call themselves “halmaenials” (a portmanteau of the words “halmoni,” meaning grandma, and millennial). This nostalgic generation has revitalized not only the culinary custom of yakgwa, but also the market for it.
In South Korea, new boutique companies like Golden Piece and Jangin Hangwa are focused on selling yakgwa for modern tastes, with flavors ranging from the original ginger-honey to lavender, chocolate and even cookies-and-cream.
Koreans have long sought after yakgwa with this sort of enthusiasm. Kings of Korea’s Goryeo dynasty even banned the making and eating of yakgwa because the popularity of its main ingredients — wheat, honey and sesame oil — created scarcity and sent prices soaring.
Traditionally, yakgwa was served only on special occasions, such as festival days like Chuseok and Seollal, birthdays and at life’s four rites of passage, known as gwan-hon-sang-je: coming-of-age (gwan), marriage (hon), death (sang) and the veneration of the dead (je), a custom which many families still practice today.
The lesson is universal: Only in maturing through life do you get to partake in its richest pleasures.
When Hyaeweol Choi’s mother died in 2012, the funeral made her realize the power of gathering at life’s critical junctures, including in death. Funerals are meeting points, said Dr. Choi, a gender historian and professor of Korean studies at the University of Iowa, where strong bonds are forged among relatives, both living and dead, who are otherwise “scattered over time.”
A year later, Dr. Choi performed the fourth rite of passage for her mother in the form of jesa, which involves setting a large table with candles and a rich assortment of food and drink offerings for the deceased.
If Dr. Choi’s mother had a specialty, it was her encyclopedic knowledge of Korean ceremonial foods like yakgwa and how to present them. That’s why the recent commercialization of the cookie, with its ubiquity among young people who respect the tradition enough to reinterpret it, has delighted Dr. Choi. “Food evolves constantly, adjusting to new demands and new tastes,” she said.
Today, Koreans enjoy yakgwa outside of those rites of passage, like as an after-school snack or weekday dessert with vanilla ice cream. The Korean restaurant Cho Dang Gol in Manhattan serves on-the-house packages of delicious mini yakgwa at the end of the meal with your check, like soft mints or sticks of gum.
Still, a bite of homemade yakgwa tends to exceed anything store-bought, nine times out of 10. Since yakgwa is fried, the oil can go rancid in mass-produced packaged versions, so making the cookies from scratch is a quest worth pursuing. When fresh, the cookie’s sticky, amber syrup should drip off slowly, drenching your fingers, like Winnie the Pooh’s paw, in honey.
While the chewy outside gives way, the crunchy interior resists slightly. (The YouTube star and cookbook author Maangchi uses the word “juicy” to describe biting into fresh yakgwa.)
This idiosyncratic dough is a tangle of flour, sesame oil, soju, honey and spices. In my yakgwa, ground ginger and cinnamon recall the gently sugared flavors of Korean staples like sujeonggwa, a refreshing cinnamon punch, and yaksik, a lovely sweetened rice with chestnuts, pine nuts and jujubes (a kind of red date).
The crispy, flaky fried cookies are dunked in a glossy jocheong, a not-too-sweet Korean brown rice syrup, which here is boiled with chunks of fresh ginger and a little honey.
In many ways, the frying is as easy as baking; your medium just happens to be a steady, simmering pool of oil, crowded with disks of dough. They puff ever so slightly to reveal their layers. Soaking crunchy cookie in gingery syrup requires patience, but that’s all right. The sweetest things in life take time.
Yakgwa comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mold, though the fluted flower shape may be the most common. In “The Korean Cookbook,” written by Mr. Park, the chef who sips honey like medicine, and the researcher and chef Jungyoon Choi, there’s a recipe for a crispier, flakier variation of yakgwa in the form of rectangles. This style is emblematic of a rich food culture Mr. Park called a “hidden gem of Korean cuisine,” from the city of Kaesong in North Korea.
“Of course we cannot go there anymore,” he said. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a connection. “We share the culture, we share the language and we share the food as well.”
Despite its ancient roots, yakgwa is hardly a time capsule. Like the city of Seoul, it’s a living, breathing piece of tangible heritage. Iterating is what keeps it alive.