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[ICONIC FOOD] Wintertime’s sweetest treat: In Korea, strawberry season comes in the middle of the coldest months of the year

Jan 14,2019
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Top: Farmers in Busan harvest strawberries in December. Above: Different strawberry varieties appeal to different tastes. The most popular variety at the moment, Seolhyang is in the middle. Japanese varieties that were popular before the arrival of Seolhyang are Yukbo, left, also known as Red Pearl, and Janghee, right, also known as Akihime. [YONHAP, JOONGANG ILBO]
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A model poses with a Barbie doll, left, to promote the strawberry buffet at JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square in central Seoul. The InterContinental hotels in southern Seoul, right, offer a variety of strawberry desserts throughout the winter.[EACH HOTEL]
Just in time for the new year, bright red strawberries have taken over the aisles at local supermarkets and have quickly become one of the highest-selling fruits of the season.

At first, some may wonder how strawberries - associated with summer in many parts of the world - are so plentiful in the middle of winter. Thanks to greenhouses, farmers across the country have been able to grow strawberries starting as early as November and have been successful in making the fruit widely available in the winter.

With larger quantities available in the market, annual strawberry consumption has increased to about four kilograms (nine pounds) per person in Korea, according to the Korea Rural Economic Institute. The organization forecasts that consumption will increase even further despite the fact that sales of local fruits in general have been decreasing due to the availability of more exotic fruits, such as mangoes and cherries, in Korea in recent years.

Behind increased domestic sales is continuous research by local experts, including the Rural Development Administration. Until around 2000, Korea planted Japanese varieties of the fruit, like Red Pearl and Akihime. Around that time, local experts became more serious about developing Korea’s own variety of strawberry and introduced Seolhyang, which is currently the most abundant type of strawberry. Seolhyang makes up about 80 percent of the strawberries sold in Korea and is known for its density and sweetness.

The experts didn’t stop at developing one variety, but continued to make many more available in Korea to cater to different tastes in the market. Some varieties are bigger, while others are more acidic.

The expected increase in consumption has a lot to do with the retail industry introducing new items made with strawberries. Hotels and bakeries have been increasingly creating new products featuring strawberries to attract consumers’ attention throughout the winter.

The easiest way to get your strawberry fix is to go to a strawberry buffet offered at many major hotels early in the year. Besides fresh fruit, the buffets also offer a variety of cakes, cookies, ice cream and candies either made with strawberries or adorned with the red fruits.

The two InterContinental hotels in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, were the first in Korea to introduce the concept in 2007. This year, the hotel has decided to add more savory treats to its array of choices.

This month, the Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas presents a six-course menu that ends with strawberry desserts. Appetizers made with truffles, caviar and foie gras followed by soup, pasta and a main dish will be served before visitors get to the dessert section. Savory and unlimited servings of desserts are 65,000 won ($ 58) and only available for lunch on weekends from 12 to 3 p.m. through March 31.

The InterContinental Seoul Coex serves a more common buffet, featuring savory bites and sweet desserts. including salmon sandwich, stir-fried rice noodles, tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), as well as strawberry Nutella pizza for 55,000 won on Fridays and Saturdays.

The JW Marriott Hotel Dongdaemun Square has made its strawberry desserts more appealing by featuring Barbie. For those looking to show off their strawberry delights on social media, the Barbie dessert has proven to be a hit.

More affordable options are available as well. Such convenience stores as CU, GS25 and 7-Eleven have introduced strawberry sandwiches that contain cream. According to 7-Eleven, sales of these sandwiches jumped 62.5 percent last winter from the season before. The company’s merchandising director added that the sandwich is only seasonal and is the best dessert offering in the winter season. GS25, the first convenience store to introduce the strawberry dessert sandwich sold 2.2 million sandwiches last year.

Other small bakeries and cafes are also introducing items using strawberries. Sikbugwan, a sister store to restaurant TocToc in Singsa-dong, southern Seoul, started serving its own strawberry sandwich in December and says that the product is the first to sell out most days.

Hold Me Coffee in Gwanghawmun, central Seoul, serves strawberry milk with chunks of the fruit inside. Strawberry juice is also available there.

Seolbing, a dessert cafe that serves bingsu (a bowl of shaved ice) also sells versions topped with sliced strawberries.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]