Korea's yakgwa booming on back of ‘newtro’ trend, media coverage

One chilly autumn afternoon in October, students of Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul poured out onto the streets for lunch. A group found their way into a small bakery by the name of Monday Picnic down an alley, where they treated themselves to yakgwa financier cakes.

“I have never really been a fan of yakgwa, but I became curious after it started trending. From yakgwa cookies and financier to ice cream, there are several forms, and they're all pretty good,” said Jo Min-jeong, a 25-year-old college student.

Yakgwa, a traditional honey-glazed cookie that has commonly been used for ancestral rituals, is among the old-timey snacks that have been gaining fresh popularity in South Korea recently. Local retailers have already moved to cash in on the recent fad, with GS25's Haengun Yakgwa snacks selling over 3 million bags since its June launch.

The latest yakgwa craze stands apart from the retro trend that has boosted the popularity of pre-2010s pop culture content. It is prevalent among a young population today who do not have the strong connection to the snack as generations past.

One would have to trace further back into the 20th century to find a generation who frequently enjoyed the honey cookies. Other than conscripted soldiers -- who only had access to a handful of munchies in the barracks -- about the only time one could find yakgwa was during such aforementioned rituals.

But thanks to social media, especially YouTube and TikTok, the snack that dates to the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) has come back into prominence among the young generation of South Korea today who call themselves “halmaenials” -- a combination of the Korean word for "granny" and "millennials" that refers to youngsters with a nostalgic taste that reminds them of their grandparents.

The popularity of yakgwa does not depend on the power of nostalgia of those who had enjoyed it in their youth, but rests on the back of the "newtro" trend sweeping across the youth in Korea. It is defined by reinterpretation of vintage or retro lifestyles, which means yakgwa is back -- but it has taken on a new form in the recent craze.