Lim Chun-sik has been making kkwabaegi (twisted doughnuts) for 43 years at a traditional street market in Seoul. For him, each day is as simple and savory-sweet as the plain treats he sells to long queues of customers.
Lim Chun-sik has been selling kkwabaegi at Yeongcheon Market, Seoul, for more than 40 years. After kneading dough, he makes thin strands, tosses them up into the air and turns them into a twisted doughnut in a blink.
Yeongcheon Market is not among Seoul’s traditional market hotspots. Its heyday ended when an overpass and redevelopment took over the area around Independence Park, shrinking the once-sprawling market considerably. Still, clusters of friendly little shops remain, and one in particular beckons customers from the nearby working-class neighborhood as well as from distant, high-rise apartments.
Situated near the market entrance, its doors flung wide open, is a small shop named Darin Kkwabaegi (Master Craftsman Twisted Doughnuts). That may sound rather boastful, considering the hundreds of places that sell kkwabaegi in the capital. But one bite of owner Lim Chun-sik’s version is enough to convince any doughnut afficionado that “master” may actually be an understatement.
The market byway rings with a voice from Lim’s shop, offering greetings, taking orders and calling forth the next customer. The scene seems to enliven everyone present, from the long lines of people waiting their turn to the smiling customers biting into their kkwabaegi and the onlookers relishing the scene.
Kkwabaegi are made by rolling flour dough out long and thin, folding it in half and twisting the two ends together almost as if making a rope – then frying it in oil. Its roots can be traced back to mahua, a baked treat made in ancient China. A specialty around the northern coastal city of Tianjin, traditional mahua is rather hard.
It is said that the ethnic Koreans of Yanbian prefecture in northeast China first began fermenting dough with alcohol or yeast to create a softer version called tarae-tteok, literally “skein cake.” The kkwabaegi of Korea, in turn, added sugar, emphasizing its sweetness. Some people pull the tightly twisted kkwabaegi apart with their fingers before eating; others bite into it whole. Either way, it is a delight.
Since appearing on the SBS weekly TV documentary show “Master of Living,” Lim has seen a lengthening line of customers at his doughnut shop.
Working Since Age 13
Darin Kkwabaegi is a family effort. Working beside Lim is his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and his youngest brother. The shop sign reads “A 42-Year Legacy,” but that went up in 2019; 2021 will mark their 44th anniversary.
The oldest of four sons from South Jeolla Province, Lim lost his father when he was in the sixth grade. To help his mother as she struggled to support the household alone, he set out for Seoul as soon as he finished elementary school. At the age of 13, Lim joined the workforce and never returned to the classroom. He ended up at Yeongcheon Market, where a friend from his hometown had a twigim (fritter) shop.
“This was originally the tteok (rice cake) alleyway,” explains Lim, acknowledging his market lane. “All the shops were either tteok shops or twigim shops. Then one day someone brought along a kkwabaegi, and they were like, ‘what if you tried this out?’ I heard that, and I got started making them. There weren’t any kkwabaegi shops back then – this was back before they were popular. But the people who’d tried them always said, they’re savory-sweet, they’re tasty, they’re easy to digest, and so on.”
Lim and his friend stayed together for 10 years. Finally, in 1977, Lim opened his own business. He stayed in Yeongcheon Market simply because of its familiarity. Initially a wholesaler, he toiled in the predawn hours, making kkwabaegi and packing them into boxes, which would be picked up in the morning and delivered to a temporary restaurant set up in a nearby construction site and a school canteen. The hard labor, using up twenty 20kg sacks of flour a day, wore him down.
Thankfully, for his health, the restaurant and canteen closed. Then, Lim switched to retail, selling to individuals directly. His just-made doughnuts quickly became a hit and a bevy of regulars formed. Before long, word-of-mouth spread and doughnut lovers from far precincts joined the queue.
To ensure quality – and to satisfy his own tastes – Lim eats three or four kkwabaegi every day. “First of all because it’s tasty, and also to see if it came out well or if it needs something tweaked. The amount of salt, the amount of sugar, the amount of water, the time spent kneading – it’s all important.”
The shop is a family business. Lim and his younger sibling make the dough and his wife and son usually handle the frying. Lim’s daughter-in-law takes customer orders and wraps up the kkwabaegi.
In addition to a pastry delight, customers get a show. One of the reasons so many people tolerate the waiting in long lines is Lim’s flashy technique.
Each batch of dough starts with 40kg of flour; to this, he adds sugar and margarine and warm water and live yeast, then starts to knead, hitting and punching. The fermented dough is then spread wide and cut into rectangular pieces about 3cm wide and 15cm long. These are then stretched into long and thin ropes that are then folded in half and thrown – whoosh – up into the air, twisted into a pleasing shape before landing with a satisfying thunk. Not only does thickness and size remain consistent, the whole process is a blur. Hypnotized and captivated, customers bestowed the “master” moniker on Lim.
Freshness is paramount. Each batch of dough is calibrated to be sold out in a short window of time. If the dough is allowed to sit for too long, the color changes and the taste just isn’t the same: the kkwabaegi must be fried and sold within three hours of kneading. And, since pre-making ruins the taste, each kkwabaegi is served just fried and piping hot. This obviously differentiates Lim’s kkwabaegi immensely from those that may sit for hours in bakeries and supermarkets.
Three batches of dough are made during a workday that begins at the crack of dawn. Lim awakens at 5:30 and only needs five minutes to walk from home to his 40-square-meter shop. He arrives by six o’clock and the first wave of customers starts to form about 30 minutes later. Rain or shine, they patiently gather outside. The shop is too small to fit anyone inside except the Lim family, so a walk-up operation is the only choice.
“There are the cleaning ladies on their way to work bright and early, and people off to their jobs at schools or hospitals. It’s a meal replacement for some people, and others get them to go, to share with their coworkers. You know, it can feel nice to eat something a little sweet in the morning,” Lim deduces.
Once the morning rush ends, around 10 o’clock, Lim eats his breakfast/lunch. Then comes the lunch rush of office workers. By two or three in the afternoon, the third batch of dough is gone and the shop is closed and cleaned. After that, the Lim family members scatter to live their own lives. Lim likes to exercise and often plays screen golf.
“It’s tiring and it takes effort, sure. But what kind of work is there where you make money without effort? Making kkwabaegi is downright elegant, as jobs go.”
Lim’s prices remain almost disconcertingly cheap. At most comparable shops, three kkwabaegi cost about 2,000 won. Lim outdoes them on all levels, presenting an unrivaled trifecta of superior quality, quantity and price: he sells four kkwabaegi for 1,000 won. Remarkably, the price hasn’t changed for the past 10 years. And yet, the cost of ingredients must have risen in that time. It’s enough to make one worry about Lim’s profit margin.
“Well, it’s a family business, so there’s no personnel costs. We don’t use eggs or milk; we make it the old way, so we charge the old prices. Part of me wants to raise the price, of course, but the economy’s not doing so well these days and this is enough for me to get by, so I’ll just keep selling at this price. The customers love that we keep the price down.”
Lim has tried to replace his hands-on attention with a kneading machine but says the resulting dough tasted awful. “If it tastes bad to me, it’ll taste bad to my customers, too. And if the customers say it tastes bad, well, then that will make us feel bad. So, I got rid of the machine,” he explains.
“It’s tiring and it takes effort, sure. But what kind of work is there where you make money without effort? Making kkwabaegi is downright elegant, as jobs go. It doesn’t take a lot of prep time, just knead the dough and fry it and you’ve got it; then when you’re done with the frying, you throw away the oil. Done. And there’s no inventory, either.”
After Lim’s twisted doughnuts attracted media attention, he received offers to brand and franchise his shop. But because he insists on kneading by hand, and the dough fried and sold right away, it is impossible for him to oversee multiple locations. Perhaps franchising would be plausible if Lim had apprentices, but he has kept that option on the shelf. This is the same stubbornness that has created and maintained the consistent flavor of his doughnuts over decades. Day after day, only his hands and taste buds know when his dough is just right. His customers’ addiction adds an exclamation point.
“You eat one, then you turn around, and you’re craving another. That’s what they say. I’ve seen someone eat 10 in one sitting. Some people freeze them at home and reheat them in their frying pan, some use a microwave and sprinkle sugar on them once they’re soft. Grandmothers steam them in their rice cookers, and young people cook them up in their air fryers. One grandmother bought up so many, I asked her, ‘How do you plan on eating all of these?’ And she said, ‘Don’t you worry about that, I’ll eat them how I eat them, you just worry about selling them.’”
“My family was never well off, so you know, I started working when I was very young. I started from the bottom, with nothing. The skills I could learn and being a hard worker, that and always keeping track of hearts and minds – that’s everything that got me where I am today. I have a son, and after graduating from college he worked in an office for a few years. Then he said he wanted to join me in doing this work. At first, I was against it. The world is a better place now and he’d gotten himself a fine education; I wanted an easier, more comfortable life for him. Besides, it would be one thing for just my son to have to struggle, but this would be hard on my daughter-in-law, too. This is the kind of work where you need all hands on deck. So, there’s no one, really, who can afford to take it easy. Still, try finding someone from my generation who hasn’t struggled in their life. Happiness and contentment today – that’s all we can hope for. I don’t care much for talking about how bad things used to be. Working hard now, working happily: that’s what matters.”
What Lim wants from life isn’t particularly extraordinary, either.
Kkwabaegi is a mainstream treat found at any neighborhood bakery but there is a subtle difference in taste according to how it is made. Lim’s dough contains no eggs or milk, so the taste of his doughnuts is simpler and a bit lighter.
“I would like good health for my family and the people close to me. That’s all. In all my livelong days, I’ve never tried my hand at the stock market – or even bought a lottery ticket. If I make just ten thousand won, well, then I spend just ten thousand won. I lost a lot of friends back in the days when I was working so hard and making so much. It was all because of money. I go out and even if there are people there with more money than me, I’ll just pay for everyone’s dinner on my credit card.”
“I can always make more money by making more kkwabaegi, you see. So, people think I’m rich – no need for me to take them aside and explain that I’m not, is there? I mean, I have a son, and I have a grandson, too – that makes me a rich man, doesn’t it?”
Lim’s life, like the kkwabaegi he makes, is simple and savory-sweet. Three in the afternoon: done with his work day, Lim shakes the flour off his coveralls and heads out of the shop with a spring in his step. The world is still barely past midday; measured morsels of happiness await him in every direction.