July 17, 2023
For the weekend before her 30th birthday, Mirina Landry was “craving some kind of new experience,” but didn’t have time to travel far. So she and her partner drove the hour from Topeka to Overland Park, Kansas, to try Korean corn dogs—the batter-dipped meat or cheese on a stick, often dusted with sugar, ramen noodles, puffed rice, or an increasing arms race of toppings and sauces, reports NBC News.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff on social media with the hot dogs and the mozzarella, but also with different flavors like Hot Cheetos and stuff like that. It all looks so good.” Landry, who described herself as “white as white can be,” said after her visit to K-Street Hotdog. She opted for one made of mozzarella cheese and encrusted with fried potato cubes.
Korean corn dogs were one of the biggest food trends in 2021. That summer, newly vaxxed and guided by TikTok and Instagram, people waited in lines an hour deep at outposts like Two Hands or Oh K-Dog NYC in New York.
Buoyed by the growing popularity of Korean culture—K-pop, K-dramas, K-beauty, and K-food—nicknamed the Korean wave or “Hallyu,” the photogenically crispy, gooey, portable snack rode a wave of popularity with influencers and trend-chasing diners.
But even as the hype subsided in diverse coastal hot spots like New York and Los Angeles, the Korean corn dog has maintained—and even increased — its following as franchises like Two Hands and Ssong’s Hotdog expand their footprint into the American heartland. Hundreds are scheduled to open in Arkansas, Kansas, Texas and Missouri, in cities not known to be hubs of Asian food, a testament to the enduring popularity of Korean food and to its adoption into an expanding American palate.
Unlike American corn dogs, Korean corn dogs (called hot dogs in Korea) use a wheat or mochi (rice flour) batter in place of cornmeal, resulting in a chewier texture. They’re made of a meat hot dog or a mozzarella stick or half of each, or fish cake, which was the original Korean version, a culmination of both the Japanese occupation of the early 20th century and the longstanding presence of U.S. troops after World War II.
Processed meats such as wieners, sausages and hams were known to Koreans in postwar South Korea due to the U.S. military presence.
Indeed, Jooyeon Rhee of the Penn State Institute for Korean Studies says, “Processed meats such as wieners, sausages and hams were known to Koreans in postwar South Korea due to the U.S. military presence, but they were used mainly as ingredients for army stew (budae jjigae). What Koreans call ‘hot dogs’ are really corn dogs that became a popular street food from the mid-1970s.”
In the 1970s, South Korea was a low-income country under a military dictatorship, and meat such as pork or beef was hard to come by. So, the original corn dogs were a mixture of flour and fish, a derivative of the Japanese fishcake, “kamaboko.”
“The wieners, more than the fried dough, were the main reason for the popularity of the Korean corn dogs among schoolchildren. Imagine how school kids became utterly disappointed when the wieners inside their corn dogs were much smaller than usual on some days. Or worse, there were no wieners at all, which happened from time to time: You could not tell whether there was one unless you digged deep enough to see the stick,” Rhee said, speaking from personal experience.
“Corn dogs were a thing of the past when Koreans had not yet been exposed to Western foods, but they were revived through nostalgia marketing about a decade ago. A number of corn dog franchises emerged, and major food companies now produce and export packaged corn dogs to many countries,” she added.
Food industry veterans say that, even with the swiftness of social media phenomena, trends can take a while longer to travel nationally but can have a longer shelf life.
“Kansas is a little different, trends are a lot slower. Stuff like that took off in bigger cities a lot earlier, even the yogurt ice creams [Korean chains like Red Mango] took off in big states, died off and then came to smaller states,” said David Ahn, 43, one of the officers of the company that owns K-Street Hotdog.
Ahn’s family business already owned a Korean grocery store, bakery, and three Korean fried chicken restaurants in the Kansas City area, when they considered adding to their Korean culinary offerings. In 2021, they opened a Ssong’s franchise, which was initially very successful and then plateaued. After severing ties with the chain, the Ahns rebranded as K-Street Hotdog earlier this year, using their own recipes and building out the menu with side items like the popular tornado fries and hotteok, a dessert pancake with a caramelized cinnamon and sesame filling.
“A lot of the bigger cities rely more on Korean customers, and there’s only so many Korean people. We target Caucasians and African Americans. Because we literally don’t have any Korean customers … maybe 5%, if that,” Ahn, who emigrated from South Korea when he was 12, said. “A lot of younger people are interested in stuff like this. A lot of Latinas, Caucasians and African American people, too. Mostly because of K-pop.”
Robin Rhee, president of the Asian food distributor Rhee Bros, has been watching Korean food grow in popularity for the past two decades, and notes that food trends for ethnic food in America can take circuitous paths.
“We see a lot of growth in Korean hot dogs and Korean food in general and snacks, in between Sioux City and Kansas City. It’s the college towns. Asian immigrants are moving to middle America for jobs—Chinese, Cambodian, Hmong. Korean food is not just popular with white Americans but other Asian ethnicities because they’re listening to Korean music, watching dramas. The colleges where Asian Americans are going now are not just UCLA or NYU—the same goes for Asian international students, and they’re driving their friends to it as well,” he said.
About three years ago, distributors started importing Korean corn dogs to the United States at about the same time the franchises started opening. The trend speaks to “the increasing popularity of Korean food,” he added.
Last Saturday, Kristy Fitzpatrick, 30, and two of her friends from St. Louis were in Kansas City for a Taylor Swift concert and stopped at K-Street Hotdog. She and one of the friends had tried Korean corn dogs in Phoenix at a local H-Mart, and that had piqued the interest of the other friend.
“They were great, we all loved them—just stinks that there aren’t any shops like that in St. Louis,” she said.
Research contact: @NBCNews