In 2014, South Korea was introduced to what has since become one of the biggest crazes in Korean convenience store snack history: Honey Butter Chips. These honey and butter–glazed potato chips, a product of Haitai Confectionery and Foods Co., Ltd., were nothing like Koreans were used to, or ever expected from potato chips.
When you think of potato chips, you probably think of one flavor note: salt, maybe potato, maybe oil. But with Honey Butter Chips, you get both sweet and salty at once, and at different stages, creating a complex yet addictive eating experience.
Honey Butter Chips went viral shortly after, even exploding into its own sub-cultural phenomenon that Koreans at the time were calling the "Honey Butter Craze.” Uber-popular K-pop celebrities—like Soo-young of Girls' Generation—were posting pictures with the chips, food bloggers were reviewing them, even news outlets in America were talking about them. There was so much demand for this $1.50 snack, but not enough to supply the demand, creating a supply-demand vacuum that spawned another phenomenon: “Honey Butter Hysteria.” Stores couldn’t handle the drove of frustrated customers who came in asking for the elusive chips that were already out of stock. It got so bad that these store owners had to put up signs that said: “Don’t ask about Honey Butter Chips. We don’t have them.” Thanks to the company’s ingenious viral marketing campaign through social media and influencers, the humble snack turned into a national treasure, and everyone was hungry for a bite.
But it wasn’t just the chips that took over Korea’s snack market. The honey-butter flavor itself became omnipresent in the Korean food scene, slathering itself onto everything from fried chicken and grilled shrimp, to almonds and McDonald's French fries.
Even here in the States, people went crazy for Honey Butter Chips. It wasn’t long before I saw that Trader Joe’s had come up with their own version. When I finally gave them a try myself, it was an experience to say the least. I was welcomed by that gentle, butter-sweet whiff when I opened the bag, and each potato chip was so thin and perfectly crisp. The first taste was sweet from the honey, and the salt from the potato chips came through right after, onto which the sweet note folded again. It was a constant back-and-forth between sweet and salty, confusing my palate and exciting it all the same.
Growing up in Korea, eating Korean food almost every day, I developed my taste buds around sweet and salty flavors. These honey-butter chips were just the tip of the iceberg. I realized then, after tasting them, that it’s almost impossible to talk about Korean cuisine without talking about salt and sugar. Koreans even have a separate term that describes that flavor sensation, called dan-jjan (or “sweet-salty”).
Some popular “dan-jjan” Korean foods are ones you may already know, like bulgogi and tteokbokki. The base of a common bulgogi marinade, for instance, is made with sugar and soy sauce, the balance of which is imperative for Korean barbecue. Tteokbokki, one of Korea’s beloved spicy treats made with rice cakes and fish cakes, has sugar and gochujang.
Even kimchi is an example of Korea’s sweet-and-salty approach. Salted napa cabbage is mixed with a spicy paste of gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) and—yes, again—sugar to complement the kimchi. (Food52's Senior Editor Eric Kim admits to failing miserably at homemade kimchi until finally he remembered the one ingredient his mom would add at the end, to taste: Domino Sugar, whose bag was always stained with red pepper juice.)
I developed this honey-butter chip shortbread recipe for a cookie contest at the International Culinary Center last year. I wanted to introduce something new that people had never seen or tried before. Honey-butter potato chips were the perfect vehicle for me to represent my palate as a Korean immigrant through “dan-jjan,” but also to showcase my own personal, whimsical approach to classical confectionery. After all, I was competing against French-trained pastry students who were equally appalled and intrigued to see me pouring a bag of potato chips into my shortbread batter.
Here, try this too
“Potato chips in your cookies?!” they guffawed.
I winked back.
Even Dorie Greenspan, whom I’ve looked up to for years as my cookie fairy godmother, and who was judging at ICC that day, tried my shortbread and said it was among the most interesting cookies she’d tasted. And that meant more to me than any prizes of yore.
My honey-butter shortbread cookies may not have gone viral at that competition in the way that Honey Butter Chips have in Korea. But they've "gone viral" at every party I’ve ever brought them to. And that’s enough for me.
For the shortbread cookie dough
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2/3 cup crushed potato chips
- 1 cup cold salted butter
For the honey-butter glaze
- 6 tablespoons melted salted butter
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
Are you a fan of "dan-jjan" (sweet-salty)? Would you try these salty potato chip cookies?