[Warning: contains mild spoilers for Season 1 of Squid Game]
Have you just finished watching Netflix’s most popular series ever and wonder if you would survive the game? Or do you simply want to know what all the fuss is about? In this article I attempt to explain everything you might possibly need to know about Squid Game (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021), ‘that Korean honeycomb candy’ and the challenge(s) involved.
For those not in the know (where have you been?), Squid Game is a South Korean dystopian drama series written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Since its debut on Netflix, the series have become a global phenomenon and is on track to become Netflix’ most popular show ever. In short and without (hopefully) too many major spoilers, the premise of the show revolves around a group of cash-strapped adults who are all invited to risk their lives playing sadistic versions of beloved children’s games in a savage and deadly survival game out of which only a single winner will emerge to win a cash-prize of 45.6 billion won.
The amazing cast of actors, writing and set designs aside, people’s fascination with the show might be explained by the fact that, not unlike another recent South Korean success Parasite (2019, Bong Joon Ho), Squid Game is essentially a narrative about underdogs in dire situations being ill-treated by society and toyed with by a few bored billionaires, which is a relatable sentiment that resonates with many people who feel like they are stuck and struggling economically or in life in general while the wealthy few become wealthier.
The show is pretty graphic as well, which is actually part of its appeal (and reminiscent of cult classics such as Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)), but the show’s ultra-violence is not just for show. The extremely violent and grotesque scenes alongside flashbacks revealing some of the characters’ pasts, put emphasis on a certain desperation of the diegetic contestants and the idea that they would rather face such extreme violence and risk it all than to return to the problems they already have had to deal with outside of the game. The real ‘terror’ for the characters lies exactly in those desperate social and economic struggles they had to face prior to joining the game and their ‘willingness’ (sometimes actual, but mostly forced or out of necessity) of some of them to lie, betray, and kill or be killed in order to have a chance of getting out of said situation. Yet, despite all their fear, despair and sadness, a few of them still retain their humanity and a little bit of hope for humanity (from others) and relief as well – which is what makes these characters so appealing and why we root for them.
Through Squid Game’s showcase of social and economic inequality, violence, and interpersonal relationships in this particularly violent and dystopian game-setting, the show simultaneously evokes questions in the viewer as well, such as “who are we (morally and humanely) as humans?” and even more so: “what would you do when faced with a similar situation?”.
Ppopgi and that ‘Squid Game Dalgona Candy’ Challenge
Okay, that’s all a bit serious and unpleasant and the show certainly doesn’t seem to be for those with a weak stomach, so why am I writing all this on a food blog and what does it all have to do with candy? Well, in an era of digital gaming and viral social media challenges, the element of game play in Squid Game provokes yet another question: “could you even survive this ‘game’?”. A question many people playfully attempt to answer by participating in the viral ‘dalgona candy challenge’ going around on TikTok and other social media that’s based on one of the games featured in the show.
[more mild spoilers ahead]
At some point in Squid Game the contestants are each given a flat, honeycomb-like, brittle, sugary treat out of which they are supposed to carve out varying shapes using only a needle, their fingers and their mouths. Should they fail to successfully carve out their assigned symbol within the allotted time, they are shot. Oof!
As with most ‘games’ in Squid Game, this specific challenge is based on a real-life childhood game involving this exact sugary treat called ppopgi or dalgona (yes, like the whipped coffee from that other viral food trend from 2020). This crisp and airy sugar candy is a well-known Korean street snack that was mostly popular throughout the final half of the 20th century, but has once again become very popular since Squid Game’s release. I’ve read (and Maangchi, for example, explains this in her ppopgi video here as well) that street-vendors would often challenge children to try and eat this brittle candy whilst keeping the central shape intact, with the promise of a free candy or small toy once completed successfully. As with any challenge, this is not as easy as it sounds, but unlike in Squid Game, in the real-life version of the game there are no deadly consequences, just disappointment. Phew!
Whether or not you grew up in Korea, I think many people can relate to such games from our childhoods albeit with different types of snacks or candies. In the Netherlands, for example, we always tried eating around the milky centre filling of a ‘Liga biscuit’ without breaking it and I’ve heard from a Greek friend that they had a similar challenge involving a chocolate candy with a white chocolate Mickey Mouse embossed in the centre. It’s no surprise, then, that after watching that particular episode of Squid Game, many people were feeling slightly nostalgic for such games and were curious to see if they would hypothetically pass on to the next round of Squid Game or die a sugary death in the lethal tournament… and that’s basically how another viral food trend was born.
Tips on How to Survive Making Ppopgi at Home
I am not on TikTok, so, per usual, I go to Maangchi’s website, or Youtube channel whenever I want to learn about Korean dishes and snacks. Of course, she had already posted a recipe for this retro candy here nearly a decade prior to this becoming a trend again (and has since posted another recipe for ‘dalgona with nuts’ here).
Turns out, there are only two ingredients necessary for making this candy: sugar and baking soda and a few utensils needed as well: a soup ladle, something to flatten the candy with, and cookie cutters. Easy, right? Wrong.
Honestly, if the ‘Squid Game candy challenge’ would start at simply making ppopgi, I would have definitely been shot before even being able to tasteit. Believe me when I say that the real challenge is trying to make this candy without a) burning the sugar, the ladle, or even worse your fingers or your house, b) beating the ingredients into a perfectly airy consistency only to have it fall apart and crystalize into hard chunks onto everything it comes in touch with, or c) making a candy with a cookie cutter permanently stuck in the middle.
To be honest, it took me
more than a few attempts to make the candies pictured in this post (and they are looking rough), but through every fail I did learn a few tips on how to possibly survive making perhaps-not-so-pretty but tasty ppopgi at home.
There are plenty of websites online where you can purchase a ‘dalgona set’, as the candy has suddenly become immensely popular again after the series aired, but you can also use whatever you have at home and use any kind of cookie cutter you might already have. I simply used a large soup ladle, a small gas stove used for making Greek coffee (you’ll want to use fire, not an electric stove) and a jar-lid and small metal saganaki pan to flatten the candy. For the latter, a proper Korean Hotteok press works best, of course.
Don’t burn the sugar: have patience.
You will have to wait for the sugar to start melting around the edges before you start stirring the sugar, or you will end up with a lumpy mess. Wait too long, however, and your sugar will burn at the bottom before the rest on top has even begun to melt. It helps to move the ladle away from the fire (which should be low at all times) a couple of times whilst stirring and waiting for all the sugar to melt. Your aim is to get a nice golden colour on your melted caramel, but not too dark.
Don’t add too much baking soda
Most recipes call for ‘a pinch’ of baking soda, but you might want to be a bit careful with that. My first couple of ‘pinches’ were a bit much, which both resulted in a near-overflowing of bubbly sugary lava and a couple of candies that were way too loose and bubbly to be moulded into any shape. About 1/16th of a teaspoon (half of your 1/8th teaspoon) should be enough. If you are a bit more skilled, you can also very quickly dip the tip of the wooden chopstick used for stirring the sugar into a bit of baking soda and stir it in with that.
Sugar (or cornstarch) on your work surfaces
Your bubbly caramel shouldn’t really stick to your parchment paper, press or cookie cutters, but it probably will. Sprinkle a tiny bit of sugar onto your parchment paper before pouring out the caramel and if necessary you can very very lightly dust the surface of whatever you’re using to press the candy with a bit of corn starch to avoid it from sticking as well.
Wait a few seconds before flattening the candy and stamping out the design
After pouring out the bubbly caramel you will both want to work fast and patiently. What does that even mean? I don’t know… it took me a while to figure out exactly when to flatten the candy and stamp out the design.
The first two (or three) times I tried to flatten my candy within seconds after pouring it out it just stuck to both the parchment paper and my press. Waiting a few seconds and then very quickly pressing onto it with the press and lifting up the press immediately worked best for me.
Similarly, you shouldn’t wait until the candy is fully set before stamping out the design, but you shouldn’t immediately plunge the cookie cutter into the hot, liquid caramel either. Wait too long and the candy will shatter. Wait too little and the cutter will either stick to the molten sugar or the shape you’ve just made will almost fully close up again before the candy sets. Ugh!
Warm water is your friend
Should all your equipment get covered in sticky or rock-hard sugar (it will), soaking it in some warm water will easily remove any sticky residue. And, according to Maangchi (I tried, she’s right), the sugary warm liquid is quite pleasant to drink after ‘cleaning’. I simply kept a small pot with warm water close by and dumped the spoon into it straight after pouring out the candy as you will need to clean your utensils between each time you make a candy for best results.
If by now you are still here and have successfully completed the challenge of reading this super-long post about a candy, you are now ready to take on the challenge of making ppopgi and feel like you are in Squid Game without the hassle of getting shot (but you might cry a little in the process). Good luck!
Ppopgi / Squid Game’s Dalgona Candy (Korean Honeycomb)
- Per candy:
- 2 tablespoons light brown or white fine granulated sugar
- 1/16 teaspoon baking soda
- Tiny pinch of corn starch (optional, read tips in post above), to dust utensils
- equipment needed:
- gas stove, or small gas burner
- large metal soup ladle
- parchment paper or silicone baking mat
- something to flatten your candy with such as a jar lid (don’t burn your fingers), cutting board, or metal press
- wooden chopstick, for stirring
- cookie cutters
- Add two tablespoons of sugar to your soup ladle and hold it a few centimetres above a low flame.
- Once the edges of the sugar start to melt slightly, stir gently with the wooden chopstick. The sugar may look a bit lumpy at first but keep stirring until all sugar is melted. To avoid the sugar from burning, move away from the flame from time to time whilst stirring if the sugar is getting too dark before it's completely melted.
- Once all lumps have disappeared and the caramel has turned golden, quickly stir in the baking soda until the mixture has turned a light colour and has become frothy.
- Turn out the frothy caramel onto a piece of parchment paper sprinkled with a tiny pinch of sugar.
- Wait a few seconds then flatten the candy with your metal press/plate/jar lid (if your press sticks to the candy too much, lightly dust it with some corn starch) for a few seconds.
- Lift the press and wait another few seconds before stamping out the shape in the middle with your cookie cutter. Remove cookie cutter as quickly as possible to avoid it from being embedded into the candy.
- Allow candy to harden for a minute and it's ready to eat, or store in an airtight container for several days.