Maybe you live in one of the approximately 142 million households that have watched Squid Game, the terrifying South Korean survival drama series turned global phenomenon. And maybe you’re one of those viewers who was so inspired by the Netflix show’s third-episode dalgona candy challenge that you tried to make the candy on TikTok, where #dalgonacandy has racked up over 1 billion views.
And then maybe, once you made all of that dalgona candy, you asked yourself: What do I do with all of these sweet, crunchy shards of burnt sugar? The answer is simple: Go for a double dalgona challenge.
But before we get to that, let’s take a minute to look at how dalgona got yanked from its Korean roots in the service of 20-second TikTok videos and, in the process, became a symbol of global food culture.
In the much-obsessed-about third episode of Squid Game, players avoid death by chipping away the outer edges of the traditional Korean sugar candy, leaving the design at its center intact. Although it’s now widely known as dalgona, in Korea, the candy is typically referred to as ppopgi, which roughly translates to the verb “extract” (as in, extract the umbrella shape or die). When Player 111 receives an illicit hint about the upcoming challenge on a tiny slip of pink paper, the English subtitle reads “honeycomb,” but the Korean words read “seoltang [sugar] ppopgi.”
The candy is an old-fashioned treat made on the streets of South Korea. When my mom was growing up in Seoul, children would gather around vendors after school, watching as they melted sugar in a special ladle, then stirred in a pinch of baking soda, causing the sugar to foam before being plopped down, pressed into a thin disc, and gently stamped with a cookie cutter. The children would carefully nibble around the stamped design to see who could leave the center figure intact. The savviest among them might use a toothpick or pin to chip away the outer edges, just like the contestants in Squid Game — though Mom insists it was all about the licking and nibbling technique. (Just imagine her delight/mortification watching Squid Game.)
Ppopgi is essentially the same candy known as honeycomb or sponge candy in cultures around the world — hence the “honeycomb” translation. If you let the frothy melted sugar set without pressing it, the result is a golden, crispy-crunchy treat full of little holes.
So why is everyone calling it dalgona candy, and how did dalgona become a viral trend not once, but twice in as many years? The explanation illustrates the global evolution of language. In 2020, South Korean actor Jung Il Woo appeared on a Korean reality TV show at a cafe in Macau drinking a wildly frothy instant coffee, which he likened to ppopgi. Calling it a dalgona coffee — the casual term “dalgona,” meaning “it’s sweet,” is frequently applied to ppopgi — Jung kicked off the #dalgonacoffee obsession that swept the early-pandemic world.
My sister and I, in the throes of pandemic recipe sharing-turned-cookbook writing, tried it and were amazed: whipped instant coffee with the flavor and, miraculously, the same frothy texture of pre-hardened ppopgi. Because it’s nearly impossible to make ppopgi without burning the sugar at least a little (more often, a lot), it tastes remarkably like a cappuccino from a big-chain coffee shop. And while most instant coffee has too much burnt-coffee flavor for our liking, it becomes extraordinary when whipped and spooned over milk — or better yet, a vanilla milkshake.
So that brings us to the double dalgona challenge: dalgona candy shards sitting atop dalgona coffee whip, spooned over an iced vanilla milkshake. The candy, if you make it right, stays crunchy to the very end, giving you plenty of opportunity to appreciate the revelation contained in every spoonful of those brilliant textures and flavors: Dalgona candy is fun, but it tastes way better in a milkshake than on its own. It’s a challenge, in short, that you’re sure to win.
Double Dalgona Milkshakes Recipe
Adapted with permission from Serious New Cook: Approachable and Inspiring Recipes by Leah Su Quiroga and Cammie Kim Lin copyright © 2022.
Makes 2 large milkshakes
2 tablespoons instant coffee, decaf or regular
2 to 3 tablespoons white sugar (3 tablespoons whips more nicely, but folks without a serious sweet tooth may prefer to use 2)
2 tablespoons hot water
2 scoops of vanilla ice cream
1 cup or so of cold milk
Dalgona candy shards (see below for instructions, if you haven’t already tried the dalgona candy challenge)
Step 1: Make the dalgona whip: Combine the coffee, sugar, and hot water in a large bowl. Whip it, preferably with a hand whisk, until your arm feels like it’s going to fall off and the mixture becomes thick, glossy, and marvelously viscous — think firm peaks of Marshmallow Fluff or Swiss meringue. (You can definitely use a hand mixer on medium, but where’s the fun in that? Plus, going too fast results in foamy, rather than super-fine, bubbles — rather like a mediocre cappuccino versus a stellar one.) Set aside.
Step 2: Make the milkshake: Fill two tall glasses about ⅓ full of ice. (Trust us, the ice helps temper the inherent sweetness of everything else.) Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to each, and pour in enough cold milk to cover it; the glass should be no more than two-thirds full. Using a long spoon, stir it together briefly, breaking up the ice cream just a bit. Then, spoon the dalgona whip over the ice cream. Top with a spoonful of dalgona candy shards, and serve with a long spoon for mixing and devouring.
For the dalgona candy shards:
If you’ve already eaten your #SquidGame #dalgonacandychallenge poppgi, try your hand at the more honeycomb-like dalgona. Set a piece of parchment paper on a large plate or baking sheet, and set aside. Place ¼ cup white sugar and 2 tablespoons filtered water in a small saucepan over medium heat; do not stir. (Minerals or impurities in the water or on your utensil will cause the mixture to crystallize.) Keep a close eye as it melts and boils, watching for it to change color just the slightest bit. (The mixture has to come to a boil and continue boiling for a few minutes, which is tricky because you don’t want it to burn.) As soon as you notice the melted sugar starting to turn gold, remove it from heat and, as rapidly as you can, stir in ¼ teaspoon baking soda until it becomes a frothy blob, around 5 seconds. Immediately dump it onto the parchment in one big pile, and allow it to cool and harden (a few minutes, if you nailed it). Once it’s rock-solid, whack it with something to break it into small pieces. (If it smells more than a little burnt, it is! Ditch it and try again.)
Cammie Kim Lin, co-author of Serious New Cook: Approachable and Inspiring Recipes (Fall 2022, Rizzoli USA), is a home cook and New York University writing professor.
Leah Su Quiroga, Cammie’s co-author and sister, is a professional cook and the former co-chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
Molly DeCoudreaux is a food photographer based in San Francisco.
Food styling by Leah Su Quiroga and Cammie Kim Lin
Recipe testing by Kai Kim Lin