What is bungeo-ppang?
Traditionally a winter snack food on the streets of Korea, bungeo-ppang (붕어빵) is a fish-shaped pastry with a sweet filling.
Until fairly recently, bungeo-ppang has always been filled with sweetened red bean paste but these days, Korean street hawkers and eateries also fill it with thick custard (aka pastry cream or choux cream), pandan paste, peanut butter, Nutella, and even ice cream.
Similar to making waffles, bungeoppang is cooked in a special mold, except whereas a waffle iron is grid-shaped, with bungeo-ppang, it’s in the shape of a pair of fish.
Bungeo-ppang is so popular in Korea, that in addition to buying it from street carts, or making at home, it can now also be bought frozen in supermarkets.
What does bungeo-ppang mean?
Like most Asian foods, the name of this snack is quite literal: bung-eo means “crucian carp” (a golden-bronze carp, related to the goldfish), and ppang simply means “bread”. Put them together, and you have “crucian carp bread”.
Bread is a bit of a misnomer, however, because bungeo-ppang is essentially a stuffed waffle.
Why is it in the shape of a fish?
The carp is a symbol of luck in many countries around the world but particularly in East and Southeast Asia, where it’s symbolic of perseverance in the face of adversity. This is due to its ability – much like that of the salmon – to swim upstream in order to reach its spawning grounds, despite the current trying to force it downstream. Furthermore, thanks to it producing a plethora of eggs, the carp symbolises abundance.
Lucky fish in Asian mythology
According to the Chinese legend, “lǐyú tiào lóngmén” (literally, “Carp Jumping Dragon Gate”), the carp can swim upstream, jump to the top of a waterfall called the Dragon Gate, and transform into a dragon. This Dragon Gate (lóngmén) – aka Yu’s Doorway (Yǔ ménkǒu) – is in a narrow gorge where the Huang He river separates the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi, and said to be where Dà yǔ split the mountain in two, and founded the Xia dynasty around 4000 years ago.
Furthermore, in keeping with this propensity for visual puns, the Chinese character for fish is 鱼 – yú. 鱼 is also pronounced the same as 余 (also, yú) – which means “more” (as in abundance). In addition, the Chinese word for carp is lǐ (鲤), which is pronounced similarly to the words for profit, 利 and strength 力 (although the tones are slightly different).
Fish symbology in Asian culture
In Asian culture, the carp also represents fertility, and a pair – often used to represent a happy marriage – is symbolic of the union of male and female energies, of mind and heart, of creating balance. Newlyweds are often given plates decorated with a pair of golden carp.
In ancient Vedic mythology, a pair of fish represent the positive and negative elements that come together to create all life in the world, while the water in which the fish live represents consciousness. This belief is extended in Buddhism so that by balancing body and mind, we each have the ability to reach Nirvana.
What is the origin of bungeo-ppang?
Between 1910 and the end of WWII in 1945, Korea had been annexed by Japan, and it was during this time that the Japanese introduced Koreans to their bean-filled fish-shaped waffle, taiyaki. Tai is a red sea bream, while yaki refers to food cooked over a direct heat; for example, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, yaki udon, and teriyaki.
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Seijirō Kanbei moved to Tokyo from Osaka to set up a shop selling imagawayaki. Realising that his round bean paste-filled waffles weren’t selling very well, he decided to make them to resemble the expensive sea bream instead, and call them taiyaki. Since tai are considered lucky fish, and, due to the fact that at the time, they were expensive, they were usually reserved for special occasions and festivals.
Seijiro’s taiyaki were a hit – so much so that the shop he opened still sells taiyaki, and can be found in the Azabu-Jūban district in central Tokyo.
Taiyaki’s popularity began to wane, however, during the second half of the 20th century, until Masato Shimon released what was to become Japan’s biggest-ever selling single, “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” (“Swim Taiyaki!”). This Christmas Day release in 1975 was used in the children’s animated series, “Hirake Ponkikki”, which featured a taiyaki who, fed up with being cooked, escapes his mold, and jumps into the sea.
At first he’s happy to be free but finds that it’s tiring having to escape from sharks, especially when his belly is weighed down by bean paste, and his body is saturated with water. Then hunger sets in, and he bites some promising-looking food, only to discover that it’s on the end of a fish hook. No matter how much he tries, Taiyaki cannot free himself, and so the angler reels him in… and then eats him.
In Korea, bungeo-ppang fell out of favor quite early on but thanks to the craze in the 1990s for all things retro, it is now one of the best-loved of Korean street foods. So much so that on Google Maps, there is an interactive bungeo-ppang map, where people can add their favorite street carts and cafés, along with information relating to opening times, prices, and reviews.
How did the sea bream become a carp?
There is a Korean folk story – the Tale of Geotaji – which tells of a large carp caught by a charcoal vendor. Feeling sorry for the fish, who was greatly distressed, the vendor let him go.
One day, the carp returned to the vendor, and invited him to accompany him to Yonggung (the dragon palace), where he discovered that the carp was actually a transformed dragon prince. The prince told the vendor that his father, the king, would offer him a reward but said that he must refuse everything except the gift the prince pointed out to him.
The charcoal vendor did as he was bid, and only accepted a small ring. When he returned home, he discovered that the dragon King’s daughter had hidden herself inside the ring; the two fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after.
In Korean mythology, the carp is a dragon in disguise, and symbolizes nobility, success, and piety.
What is the difference between taiyaki and bungeo-ppang?
Apart from the name, taiyaki tend to be larger overall, and thicker. Taiyaki is the same thickness throughout, whereas bungeo-ppang has a thinner tail and fin. The filling in taiyaki runs the entire length of the fish, while due to its tapered tail, the Korean version only has filling in the body. In Japan, savory fillings, such as sausage, pizza topping, and ham & cheese are gaining in popularity.
What is red bean paste?
Red bean paste – called danpat (단팥) in Korean (dan = sweet, pat = azuki bean) – is a common ingredient in desserts in Korea, China, and Japan. In Chinese, it’s called hóng dòu shā, while the Japanese name is anko.
When used as a filling, danpat becomes danpat-so (단팥 소). The red color comes from the beans’ husks – the beans inside are actually white. De-husked azuki beans are used to make the white bean paste, geopipat-so (거피팥소) – literally, peeled bean paste.
Danpat is simply azuki beans cooked until soft, then roughly mashed. Sugar or honey is mixed in, along with a little salt and vanilla, and then the paste is cooked on the stove top. While it can easily be made at home, it does take a few hours, so it’s far easier and quicker – and more usual these days – to buy red bean paste in cans or packets.
In addition to being a key ingredient of bungeoppang, red bean paste is also used as a filling for mooncakes and bao in China, taiyaki and daifuku in Japan, and in the Korean baram-tteok and pat-bingsu. Sweetened red bean paste is also used in many more recipes throughout Asia.
Variations of bungeo-ppang
Traditionally, bungeo-ppang is very simple, and made with wheat flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and water, plus red bean paste as a filling. However, in fairly recent years, along with a diversity of fillings, dairy and eggs have been added to the batter mix, which results in a lighter and fluffier bungeo-ppang, and a less crispy texture.
If you prefer the crispy version, leave out the egg, and replace it with 3 tablespoons of milk or water. For a bungeo-ppang with a waffle-like texture, keep the egg, and add a tablespoon of melted butter.
While not traditional, some people add a little glutinous rice flour to the mix (usually 75% wheat flour + 25% glutinous rice flour). The glutinous rice flour (aka sticky rice or sweet rice) gives the bungeo-ppang a slightly chewy texture.
Tips for making bungeo-ppang
- Don’t overfill the molds with batter: because it spreads as it cooks. If there’s too much, it will spill out all over the mold. If this happens, simply trim off the excess before serving.
- Also, the red bean paste will push the batter outward, so there is too much, it will go everywhere. To begin with, just partially fill the body of the fish with batter, then once you’ve added the filling, cover it with more batter, and then fill the tail part.
- Don’t heat the mold over a high flame – if it starts to smoke, it’s far too hot, and will need to be set aside to cool down. Always use low heat.
- Don’t be tempted to raise the heat while the bungeo-ppang are cooking – the batter will burn on the outside, leaving the inside underdone. The fish should be golden in appearance.
- The molds work best on a gas stove – they won’t work on induction cookers, and don’t work very well on ceramic hobs or electric rings. If you don’t have a gas cooker, a portable gas stove (e.g. the type used for camping) works very well.
- Although bungeo-ppang should be served and eaten immediately (as they soon start to become soft), they can be crisped up in a hot oven (around 425°F / 220˚C) for around 6 to 8 minutes.
- A word of warning; the filling is very hot, so do be careful when biting into it.
How to eat bungeoppang?
Koreans say that certain types of people eat their bungeoppang in certain ways: leaders go for the head first, athletes for the belly, philosophers and thinkers for the tail, while the more sensitive among us bite into the dorsal fin first. Which type are you?
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk plus 2 tablespoons
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (for brushing the molds)
- 8 tablespoons danpat (sweetened azuki bean paste - standard filling)
- 8 tablespoons custard (aka pastry cream, chou-cream)
- 8 tablespoons chocolate spread (e.g. Nutella)
- Mold or bungeo-ppang pan (also called taiyaki pan, similar to a waffle iron but in the shape of two fish)
- In a large jug, whisk together all the ingredients (except the vegetable oil), to make a smooth, thick batter.
- Pre-heat the closed bungeo-ppang pan over a low flame for about a minute each side.
- Open the pan, brush the fish molds on both sides with a little vegetable oil.
- Working with the side of the mold on the stove, pour enough batter into each of the two fish until about ⅓ full.
- Add a tablespoon of the chosen filling, and gently flatten if necessary.
- Add more of the batter to cover the filling and the rest of each cavity.
- Close the mold, and cook on a low heat for 2 minutes.
- Flip the mold over, and cook for another 3 minutes.
- Flip the mold over again, and cook for 1 more minute. Open the mold, and check the bungeo-ppang – they should be a golden brown color, and sound hollow when tapped. If not, flip over again, and cook for another 30 seconds.
- Once cooked, carefully remove the bungeo-ppang from the mold, and place on a wire rack to cool slightly.
- Trim off any excess, and serve hot.