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Dalgona coffee is sweet, milky, pretty – and not for coffee lovers

After much experimenting, it turns out the standard internet recipe for dalgona coffee is the best. (Tim Carman / The Washington Post)
After much experimenting, it turns out the standard internet recipe for dalgona coffee is the best. (Tim Carman / The Washington Post)
By Tim Carman Washington Post

My hands are shaking as I prepare a second batch of dalgona coffee, the quarantine-chic drink and the latest piece of evidence that we have no idea what to do with ourselves during a pandemic.

The cause of my shakes is no surprise: My first dalgona coffee, a sweet and frothy South Korean drink, included two packets of Starbucks Via Instant coffee, which amounts to 270 milligrams of caffeine or more than your basic tall cup of mud from the corporate mermaid. Granted, I was already a shot of espresso and a pour-over into my day when I started sipping on this coffee drink, but there’s no denying the wallop packed into a dalgona, which likely explains at least part of its appeal.

Now here’s the important part: My first try at a dalgona was a failure. In an attempt to reduce the amount of sugar and caffeine in the drink, I halved what has increasingly become the to-go recipe: I used one tablespoon each of instant coffee, sugar and boiling water instead of the standard two. You’re supposed to be able to mix these ingredients in a bowl until they become fluffy, sort of a cross between pudding and whipped cream.

Maybe I wasn’t patient enough, but after 10 minutes with a hand mixer, I couldn’t get the ingredients to gel into anything better than a sticky, semi-foamy mass. I spooned the mixture atop a glass with ice and 2% milk and took a sip. Strands of the dalgona goo clung to my mustache. I felt like I was trying to suck liquid through a layer of partially melted toffee. Perhaps that’s appropriate.

Even though there are similar drinks in other parts of the world – phenti hui on the Indian subcontinent, frappe in Greece – dalgona coffee became something of a sensation in South Korea in the weeks after actor Jung Il-woo took part in a mukbang segment in January on the popular show “Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant.” The look on Jung’s face after one sip of dalgona coffee – sheer hammy shock and awe – is pure gold.

But the drink really took off after South Korea adopted social distancing practices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As part of the campaign, officials recommended that people keep in touch with each other “by using social media measures instead of meeting them personally.”

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, South Koreans, in their forced isolation, turned to making and sharing videos of dalgona coffee, named after a popular street candy (also known as “ppopgi”). A mixture of melted sugar and baking soda, the confection takes its name from the Korean word “dalguna,” meaning “sweet” in English. It’s a riff on honeycomb toffee.

All my attempts at dalgona coffee were sweet. You can find recipes that suggest you decrease the amount of sugar, but I don’t recommend them if you’re using the medium-roast Colombian beans processed into Starbucks Via Instant coffee. I hate to sound like a snob, but when I tried the Via coffee straight, it tasted like dirt, burned rubber and imminent death.

Via Instant, at least this version, is to coffee what “Jaws 3-D” is to cinema. You need all the sugar you can find to counteract the flavor of Colombian Via Instant.

I fiddled with a number of approaches to dalgona coffee. I tried using fresh-brewed espresso, but it doesn’t froth sufficiently even when I added heavy cream and extra sugar to the mixture. (I later learned there’s something to the science of instant coffee that helps generate the necessary air bubbles.)

I also tried folding homemade whipped cream into a reduced mixture (the same one tablespoon each) of sugar, instant coffee and hot water, but the drink ended up tasting more like a coffee-flavored milkshake. The only combination that frothed properly was the increasingly standardized recipe of two tablespoons each of instant coffee, sugar and hot water.

You can’t outsmart the internet. You also can’t stop the caffeine shakes that follow.

Even with a proper froth, my best dalgona had none of the pleasures of standard milk-and-coffee drinks such as lattes or cappuccinos. My dalgona could not escape the harsh, bitter edge imposed on it by the Via Instant coffee. No doubt my results would have improved had I used something more artisanal.

Then again, I like to drink coffee for the flavors trapped in the beans themselves extracted with care and unadulterated by milk, sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, whipped cream or anything else that could mask the singular identity of those beans. I’m searching for a purity of expression with coffee, not a preparation to satisfy my sweet tooth.

I’m convinced our obsession with dalgona coffee lies with its inherent photographic beauty. It appeals to our love for visually striking food and drink. It also demands work, which makes us feel productive as we’re trapped under quarantine.

But you know what else requires work? A pour-over, which also has the added benefit of tasting like coffee.

Dalgona Coffee

2 tablespoons instant coffee

2 tablespoons sugar

About 1 cup milk

Place the instant coffee and sugar in a glass bowl along with two tablespoons of boiling water and combine with a hand mixer until creamy and airy, about 4 to 5 minutes. It will take longer if you mix by hand.

Fill a coffee cup or, for better visual appeal, a rocks glass with ice and your preferred amount of cold milk. For a hot drink, you can warm the milk first. Spoon the dalgona mixture atop the milk. Take a picture to share on Instagram.

Mix the ingredients together. Enjoy.

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