While the United States has "honeycomb" and New Zealand has "hokey pokey," South Korea calls its spongy toffee candy "dalgona" or ppopgi, a candy that's made by heating sugar, oil, and baking soda; mixing until it's thick and fluffy; then letting the mixture harden. Over the past few weeks, as coffee shops close amid government recommendations and as many of us retreat inside with our stockpile of groceries, dalgona has picked up new meaning with "dalgona coffee," an online global coffee trend.
In YouTube tutorials, TikToks, and posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, people all over the world are making dalgona coffee, which consists of milk topped with a thick layer of coffee foam that's made by vigorously mixing instant coffee, sugar, and water. The drink seems to have earned its name from the foamy coffee topping, which resembles dalgona before its mixture of whipped oil and sugar is flattened. Its popularity is a confluence of multiple internet trends: fluffy food, ASMR videos, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that so many people across the globe are now isolated or quarantined amid the global coronavirus outbreak and are now making coffee at home.
According to Google Trends, the phrase "dalgona coffee" was basically nonexistent until January 26 of this year, when there was a tiny blip of interest. On February 22, Korean YouTuber 뚤기ddulgi posted what's now the most viewed dalgona coffee video on YouTube, with over 2.8 million views. In the three-and-a-half-minute-long clip, 뚤기ddulgi uses a mixer to whip the coffee, sugar, and water into a foam so thick it looks more like frosting or caramel pudding and then dollops it onto a glass of milk and swirls it around. Unlike a latte or a cappuccino, in which the froth comes from aerated milk, the fluffiness of dalgona coffee comes from the coffee and sugar itself.
Other YouTubers quickly followed suit with their takes on dalgona coffee, also referred to as "frothy coffee" or "coffee stirred 400 times." On February 26, YouTuber 서담SEODAM posted a "frothy coffee" video that has 1.7 million views as of this writing; in December, 서담SEODAM had shared a video for dalgona milk tea. On February 28, YouTuber Hanse, who has 2.21 million subscribers, posted a dalgona coffee video as well, and since March 1, Google search interest for dalgona coffee has spiked.
As the long lines and thousands of Instagram posts for Japan's fluffy souffle pancakes and pillowy cheesecakes have proven, there's an added novelty and fun to food that wiggles and jiggles a little bit, and the vision of spooning and smoothing the pillowy foam of dalgona coffee has a pleasurable appeal that translates through a computer screen.
Add to that the popularity of ASMR, in which videos focus on a range of pleasing sounds, and the rise of dalgona coffee videos makes sense. With little to no music and no narration, you can hear the light crunch of coffee grounds as someone scoops them with a spoon, the slosh the water makes when it's poured into the bowl, the clink of the whisk as it whips the foam, and the soft plop the mixture makes when it's dropped into a glass. Like YouTube's "home cafe" trend, in which people make videos as they assemble aesthetically pleasing drinks, the process of making dalgona coffee is soothing and relaxing to watch, even if you don't get the "tingles" some people associate with ASMR.
Though the early posters of dalgona coffee videos were based in Korea, people in Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Germany, and the United States have taken hold of the trend—all countries with cases of COVID-19 and where there are mass communal efforts toward isolation and social distancing. Some of these videos acknowledge our new global circumstances: One from Malaysia shows a person making dalgona coffee on day one of the country's 14-day restricted movement order, while another from South Korea suggests making dalgona coffee if you're bored while in quarantine.
Beyond YouTube, people are sharing their versions of the drink on Twitter, TikTok (with 3.4 million views for the hashtag so far), and Facebook groups like Subtle Asian Eats, the food offshoot of Subtle Asian Traits.
In the United States, where 25 states have already issued limitations on food service businesses and where the push to #stayhome is growing as we take cues from the virus' effects in other countries, dalgona coffee is also having a moment.
Jammie, who is currently isolating in Michigan, learned about dalgona coffee through YouTuber Michelle Choi, also known as The Seoul Search. Having made the drink every morning for the past week, she told VICE that it's now her favorite way to drink coffee.
"Because people are called to stay indoors as much as possible and many cafes are closed during this COVID-19 outbreak, people are more open to trying out this drink at home," Jammie said.
Alyssa, who is based in Texas, told VICE that she tried dalgona coffee after learning about it on Facebook and Twitter, and it was so good that she made a second drink just three hours later. What she likes about it is how simple the ingredients are and how easy it is to make, even if you don't use a hand mixer.
"I believe everyone is trying to get their specialty coffee fix without having to leave the house. Yes, there’s Starbucks and there’s small coffee shops that are still open, but since everyone’s at home, might as well make it from home," she said. "But I also think that if we weren’t in quarantine, it would still be popular."
Joben, who is "pretty isolated" in Arizona, said that the only thing getting him out of the house at the moment is getting groceries. He learned about dalgona coffee through 서담SEODAM's YouTube, and he isn't surprised that it's taken off so much online.
"Honestly, this recipe/trend hit at just the right moment. It started when quarantine started to happen and groceries started to run out of many ingredients," he told VICE. "The simplicity of the recipe is what I believe made it popular. Hot water, sugar, and instant coffee—most people have that in their pantries and if not, sugar and instant coffee is still readily available in grocery stores."
According to Joben, one thing he likes about the dalgona coffee trend is how everyone has made it their own. He thinks there's potential for the technique beyond drinks: folding the coffee mixture with whipped cream, for example, could become a filling for pastries. Meanwhile, on TikTok, people are applying the same technique to matcha powder.
"Food has an amazing ability to bring people together. When people want comfort, many people turn to food," Joben said. "Also, I think it was just fun to see everyone on [Facebook] make their own version of a recipe and share their experiences. Reading about people (like me) struggle without electric mixers and trying to hand mix it was funny to read about. Good thing I've worked in a few restaurants."