Jung Il-Woo, an actor from South Korea was visiting Macao, where he was served a strange beverage which reminded him of a confection from his childhood; an airy, melt-in-the-mouth candy. Similar to honeycomb in the West, the Koreans call it ppopgi or dalgona. It is a streetside treat popularised in the 1970s and 80s made by whisking sugar and baking soda over a flame till it turns light and fluffy, after which it is pressed onto a surface and decorated with stencils. Koreans love this sweet treat, with its melt-in-the-mouth texture and slightly bitter aftertaste.
Woo talked about this “unique” beverage on a Korean TV show in January this year, dubbing it Dalgona coffee, after the sponge candy. And soon, it became viral, first on TikTok where people posted videos of themselves making this coffee. Koreans talked about how this interesting coffee reminded them of the sponge candy from their childhood. However, it wasn’t just the Koreans who thought that something about this recent trend rang loud deja-vu bells.
In India, instant coffee is the norm, and brewing your own coffee at home is almost never the case. The rise of numerous cafes like Barista and Starbucks is slowly changing that, but the exorbitant prices still makes it a rich-people thing. In the average Indian household, coffee still means instant coffee. All you need to make a cup is some hot milk, water, sugar, a spoonful or two of instant coffee. However, there is one way that Indians have been elevating coffee for years within this frugal limit, without an espresso machine or any other fancy equipment.
All it takes is instant coffee, sugar and a tiny amount of water mixed together and beaten vigorously. The transformation is almost magical. The dark brown liquid turns into a lighter shade of beige, the mixture fluffs up and you end up with a thick, unctuous foam. All you need to do now is add hot milk, mix it up and top it up with more coffee foam. This technique works for instant coffee rather than freshly ground coffee, because the former has a lower moisture content which allows it to froth up better.
This style of coffee, often called phenti hui coffee or beaten coffee or Indian cappuccino, is a great example of resourcefulness. Our radiology department makes beaten coffee, and I absolute love the cappuccino-like texture, even more so because I realise just how economical it is. Being a coffee lover, I prefer it to tea, anyday. So, what exactly is going on here? Why does coffee and sugar turn into foam, as it by magic?
There are multiple theories as to why this happens, but here is the opinion of coffee expert James Hoffman. Milk has compounds that act as surfactants, reducing its surface tension and causing it to froth, thus producing that familiar cappuccino foam. Coffee too has its own set of surfactants, and it is this which produces the light, frothy layer on top of an espresso which coffee nerds call crema. This crema, however, is very unstable.
Beating the coffee in a highly viscous solution on the other hand, produces a much more stable foam. And the more you beat it, the smaller the incorporated air bubbles become, making it lighter it colour as well as texture. And this is why add a ton of sugar and the tiniest amount of water possible to create a super-viscous liquid which can then be transformed into a gorgeous foam.
After TikTok, the concept of Dalgona coffee took over the rest of the Internet by storm. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has led to the issuing of lockdowns in most countries, and this clickworthy beverage which takes minimal equipment to make at home spread like wildfire. Not mixing the foam into the milk like a traditional beaten coffee creates a greater contrast of colours which makes it incredibly photogenic. YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Instagram shots; everywhere you looked there was this glass of milk topped with brown foam. Dalgona memes flooded the internet. A new trend was born.
This has happened before. Turmeric latte took the West by storm by the summer of 2016. People marvelled at this amazing drink, going on and on about its gorgeous colour and medicinal value. What’s ironic is that even Indians raved about this golden elixir of life without giving second thought to the fact that it is simply haldi doodh, something which has been around for generations. Things that have been around unnoticed for years suddenly gain center-stage. But why?
There is something tantalising about following a trend, that feeling of social camaraderie, that realisation that people all over the world are doing the same thing as you right now. As social creatures, we are magnetically drawn to that idea. From following the Premier League to tweeting about the Royal Wedding, trends like these unite people the world over. And in today’s world of the global village thanks to the Internet, trends like these are becoming increasingly relevant. The ongoing pandemic makes it a difficult time for everyone, and simple things like these help keep the morale up.
And if you’re like me and don’t care much for trends, it is still a brilliant drink. The texture of the coffee foam is rich, almost reminiscent of Italian meringue. Mix it up with the milk and you get a sweet, light, delicious drink. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters when it comes to food? So yeah, although I’m really, really skeptical about activated charcoal ice-cream as a food trend, Dalgona coffee is something I can get behind, anyday. Cheers!