When Beijing tea shop owner Lynn studied in South Korea in 2008, she used to see dalgona biscuits being sold to children everywhere.
The vendors churned out these treats at lightning speed, made in a metal ladle and stirred with a chopstick.
A dozen years later, she had forgotten about it. But this year, the sweet treats had returned to her life like a tsunami when the dalgona became a global sensation after Netflix’s Squid Game became its most successful debut of all time.
Lynn thought the sensation could be an opportunity for her tea shop, so she tried making the confectionery herself.
But despite a simple recipe of mixing sugar and baking soda, the biscuit is remarkably tricky to make because the temperature and timing had to be precise.
Lynn could only make about 10 saleable biscuits in the early days, and her kitchen became a sticky mess in the aftermath.
Gradually, she got the hang of it and started selling the confectionery in her shop. Customers can get a piece after they buy a cup of tea and pay an extra 5 yuan.
Lynn’s twist was to lean into Squid Game, and she imprinted a shape into the biscuit. Her customers could then go through the challenge of cutting out the imprinted shape without breaking the confectionery – just as the protagonists in Squid Game did. If they succeeded, Lynn’s customers were rewarded with another treat or tea.
“Crap, this is goodbye then,” said Cui Ying, a customer, who had failed in his mission to extract the shape from the biscuit.
He has not watched Squid Game but knew what it was from social media. Curious, he went to the shop and discovered he needed to peel out the centre shape with a needle within 10 minutes.Cui Ying had been browsing restaurant review site Dianping.com on Monday when an advertisement popped up for something called “dalgona confectionery”, at a local coffee shop.
But it was a lot harder than he expected. The dalgona was thin and brittle, and broke apart easily.
“It was an immersive experience. These types of shops are a novelty in Beijing as well. It felt fashionable and fun,” he told the Post.
For Lynn, it was good business. “My sales have gone up three to fives times,” she said. “I now have to make around 80 candies per day.”
While unavailable in China, Squid Game has still broken through the country’s social media net.
Shops in multiple major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, offered dalgona biscuits, which are a core part of one episode. The price ranges from a few yuan to 30 yuan (US$4.66).
A patissier said on Dianping.com that her friends have been urging her to make the confectionery, and she did try. Although the cooking process was simple enough for her, playing the game turned out to be a nerve-racking experience.
“My hands could not help shaking and I was ‘dead’ within three minutes,” she wrote. “How many games would you pass?”
She started selling the confectionery for 3 yuan apiece. “Would I scare passers-by if I distributed the confectionery on the streets wearing a pink jumpsuit?” she wrote.
Some bloggers also demonstrated on Chinese social media how to cook the biscuit. One vlogger on Xiaohongshu received more than 10,000 likes for posting a 2-minute video of herself making the sweet treat.
Even though most vloggers do not have the special round mould used by Korean street vendors, they found their own ways. Many used soup ladles, especially common in Chinese kitchens, to melt sugar over a gas stove.
After they repeatedly stirred the liquid and it turned light brown, they added a pinch of baking soda to thicken the mixture.
After a few seconds, the batter was to be poured onto parchment paper in a round shape before gently pressing a biscuit cutter in the middle to leave an imprint.
This Post reporter tried making the toffee following the Xiaohongshu recipes, but without the grace and ease of the vloggers.
It is extremely easy to burn the sugar, and the liquid quickly turns from light brown to dark brown, which makes the confectionery bitter.
If the cooking goes well, it’s still a challenge to pour the mixture into a round shape without air bubbles in the final product.
Imprinting the shape is harder than imagined because the biscuits are brittle, so one slip of the hand ruins the product.
For those unable to make it themselves, the treat can be found in for around 7 yuan apiece and they come in round tin boxes, just like in the game. Unfortunately, online comments suggest the quality differs tremendously. They suspected the shops only wanted to ride on the popularity and make some quick cash.
In the end, it seems apparent that this is a phase that will pass.
“I do hope people keep their expectations levelled,” Lynn said. “I would rather they come to my shop for drinks.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.