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[ICONIC FOOD] Not your grandfather’s potato chips or popsicles

Mar 04,2019
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Some of the snacks available in Korea that have been given new and unique flavors are shown above. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
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Snacks are getting a flavor overhaul in Korea.

Take the humble potato chip. Manufacturers are using a variety of flavors in their salted snacks, audaciously adding such flavors as kimchijjigae (kimchi stew) to make their products irresistibly new and novel.

Until five years ago, Korea was a relatively conservative land in terms of its potato chips, which are a staple snack for the public. That changed in 2014 when the country fell in love with honey butter potato chips. The snack was so popular that shortages were reported - along with hoarding and profiteering - and honey butter flavoring was eventually applied to many other kinds of snacks. Potato chip makers realized that new flavors were the route to greater profits, including sweeter flavors. Snack lovers couldn’t have been happier with the new trend. Novelty had been ignored in the snack market and some of the best-selling snacks from large retailers were old chestnuts indeed, including Home Run Ball, which was first introduced in 1981, as well as Orion’s Choco Pie, first released in 1974.

Nongshim Shrimp Cracker, a popular crispy shrimp-flavored snack made by Nongshim dating back to 1971, jumped on the bandwagon. It is now available in the original and spicy version, along with a seasoning called gganpung, a sauce often used with fried shrimp in Korean-style Chinese food.

Binggrae’s Kotgerang, a crab-flavored savory snack that first hit the market in 1986, got a wasabi infusion to celebrate the 30th anniversary since its release in 2016, followed by the 2015 release of a jjambbong version, modeled on the Korean-Chinese style spicy noodle served with seafood. Thanks to increasing sales and a lot of attention on social media, Binggrae decided to continue its search to find spicy notes that go well with the taste of crab. Last week, it released a cheongyang pepper flavored Kotgerang in an attempt to introduce more Korean flavors as opposed to Japanese or Chinese influences. Before the release, the company did a survey and found out that some consumers chose the spicier version to eat with alcoholic drinks and often used mayonnaise as a dipping sauce.

“We are trying to provide a new experience to consumers with a brand that’s been around for over 30 years,” said an official for the company. “We will continue to research and introduce new products with new flavors.”

The search for new flavors goes beyond mastering the right level of spiciness. Haitai-Calbee, the pioneer of the Honey Butter Chip, added flavors similar to cooked sea bream over rice to its potato chips. Oh Yes, originally a chocolate sponge cake, introduced a purple-colored sweet potato flavor to make their cake more fun and trendy.

Relatively newer Ggobuk Chip, also known as Turtle Chip, has introduced a corn soup flavor and a chip with Himalayan salt, while Bbasae, a shrimp-flavored snack, is being seasoned with lobster, corn and cheese.

Global companies are also trying to introduce flavors for the Korean consumer. Pringles researched flavors familiar to travelers at rest stops on highways. It released two flavors: grilled potato and garlic, and sausage grilled on coals. The sausage version is much praised on social media, with people saying it tastes just like popular rest stop snack sotteok sotteok, skewered sausage and tteok (sticky rice cake).

New flavors are also finding their way into ice cream. Haitai Confectionery and Foods added a lemonade version of its steady selling Tank Boy product, which has a base taste of Korean pear. Lotte Confectionery is making variations of its Jaws Bar, an icy sorbet on a stick which originally came with a grey to purple exterior with a red filling inside. The new versions are white or pink with different fruit flavors. The company also changed its popular Subak Bar, watermelon sorbet which was mostly red with a thin green layer, resembling a slice of the real fruit. It expanded the green layer, as customers claimed in reviews that was their favorite part. (In fact, it’s an old joke that you can tell a real friendship if your buddy gives you the green part of the Subak Bar.) The new Subak Bar has been a hit.

“The companies have fun adjusting flavors of its steady sellers to make them trendy for consumers,” said food columnist Lee Hae-rim. “It’s a way of promoting an existing brand better while getting extra profits and fighting sluggish sales.”

As a marketing strategy, it’s easier and a lot less expensive than coming up with an entirely new product. “The flashy interest in each newly-flavored product has about the same impact as the release of a completely new product,” Lee said, “so a company may be able to see higher returns with the additional investment done to already existing products.”

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