One of the more surprising aspects of Korean culture I have found is the abundance of coffee shops. I expected to see a lot of street food; I expected different social norms; I did not expect cafes.
Yes, any big city will have its coffee shops (and a Starbucks or two), but I’m not talking about an average amount of coffee shops. Korea has more coffee shops than I have ever seen, even more than what I saw in Italy. They are on every single street; sometimes they will be lined up two or three in a row. No matter where you are in Korea, there’s coffee nearby.
It’s actually nice they are so prevalent. No matter where we are when we are out, we know we can get a little drink and snack easily. I have lost track of how many cafes we have visited. There are so many chains! Americans will recognize Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, which are quite popular. However there are many more: Tom n Toms, Paris Croissant, Paris Baguette, A Twosome Place, Cafe Bene, Angel in Us, Ediya Coffee, and more. Those are just the chains! There are hundreds of small, mom-and-pop shops too! The most recent data I could find lists that in Seoul alone there were over 12,000 coffee shops at the beginning of 2012, which was a 54% increase from the previous year. I have no doubt that the coffee industry has continued to expand since that time.
With so many coffee shops, you might imagine that Koreans are like Americans who run in to the closest Starbucks and rush out with their latte moments later. Quite the opposite; from what I have observed, Koreans enjoy their coffee at a very leisurely pace. Each shop has overstuffed chairs, intimate tables, and customers who have settled in for an hour or two. Often I have spent over half an hour in a coffee shop and still leave before the people who were seated when I arrived.
Some of you who know me well might say, “wait a minute, Bethany doesn’t even drink coffee!” I don’t, but I still enjoy the cafe experience at least once a week. There is always a variety of teas, juices, and smoothies to excite my palate. Also, each cafe provides complimentary water. Even better than the drinks though, in my opinion, is the food! Coffee shops have delicious treats, including bingsu, Korea’s version of ice cream. It has shaved ice, condensed milk, and yummy toppings. Toppings are usually fruit based (strawberry, mango, blueberry), but may also include cookie crumbles or beans. Yes, beans. These Koreans love their sweet beans (azuki beans, called “pat” in Korea) and sneak them into so many foods! I had a difficult time determining bean from Oreo in one bingsu testing. Bingsu is served in a large bowl and is meant to be shared with friends. (You get over double-dipping cooties pretty quickly here!)
Another favorite treat at the coffee shops is the bread. There are many varieties, both sweet and savory. The breads are similar to french toast. There is usually a stack of three slices and then whatever toppings you requested. I have had a sweet version with carmel, whipped cream and cinnamon, but have also enjoyed a cheese, garlic, and honey creation. The bread is toasted so that it is very crispy on the outside, but melt-in-your-mouth fluffy on the inside. So delicious. Cafes often have waffles with ice cream on top, which are a fun treat too. However, I have yet to find a coffee house waffle that is a good as a subway or street side vendor waffle.
One of the best things about the cafes here is that it is easy to order, as the menus almost always include English. Though, Americans can hardly take credit for the term “cafe latte.” Most of the coffee drinks are pronounced similarly in Hangul and English, as the Koreans do not have separate words for these items. For example, “커피” is simply pronounced “koh-pee,” and means “coffee.” (How many of you just sounded out “koh-pee?”) Their menus do have a few regional differences, mainly recipes including the beans or green tea. I think it is fun to see what they come up with. Right now, I prefer Cafe Bene’s bingsu and Tom and Tom’s smoothies; however, I plan to keep taste testing to find more favorites! As much as I enjoy the coffee shops now, I know that I will appreciate them even more this winter when I need a little help warming up. Until then, I plan to keep finding my favorite spots and treats!
And, no, I don’t think I’ll try the red bean, green tea frappucino.