Every cuisine has its secrets — ingredients that don’t get exported, offerings that live off-menu, street foods that visitors haven’t heard of until they arrive in a new country. In recent years, South Korean cuisine has enjoyed a boom in popularity. While you probably know your bibimbap from your bulgogi by now, it’s likely you’ve never heard of, let alone tried, beondegi – especially if you hail from a Western country.
Beondegi are silkworm pupae. Bugs simply aren’t a part of mainstream cuisine in Europe and North America, but even among Koreans, beondegi have, at best, a mixed reputation. Some people love them. Others hate them. Chef and writer Seoyoung Jung tried them when she was seven. “I threw up and cried,” she tells Matador Network. “After that, I can’t eat it.”
In a video about beondegi, YouTuber Angela Minji Kim’s Korean grandpa spits his out when he tries it. Her dad, though, is into them. (The writer’s Korean dog flatly turned it down when offered).
How to find beondegi in South Korea
In Korea, you’ll smell beondegi before you see them. The aroma is nutty, shrimp-like, and a bit like canned corn. The most reliable place to find beondegi is at traditional markets, where vendors steam or boil them in large pots over open flames. They look like tiny deflated footballs. Cooked beondegi have a firm, chewy texture with maybe just a bit of crunch. They’re earthy and savory, and they release a squirt of warm, briny juice when you bite into them.
To try some, simply point and say, “Beondegi juseyo” (“Beondegi, please”), and the vendor will scoop a spoonful into a paper cup and jab them with a toothpick, which functions as your utensil — a standard method for serving Korean street food.
If plain beondegi doesn’t sound appealing, you can try the pupae in beondegi-tang, a soup that’s flavored with soy sauce, garlic, chilies, green onions, and red pepper powder. It’s most often sold as an anju, or drinking snack, at old-style pubs called hopeu. To order, just push the call button attached to your table, and when a server arrives, tell them “Beondegi-tang juseyo.”
If you can’t make it to South Korea but still want to try beondegi, a third option is the canned beondegi sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, including H-Mart and many Asian grocery stores in the United States. The most common brand is Yudong, which makes both canned beondegi and beondegi-tang, the latter of which comes in either a soybean paste broth or hot pepper broth. Like almost everything else, however, beondegi is better fresh.
The history of beondegi
Koreans have practiced sericulture (breeding silkworms for the purpose of producing silk) for 4,000 years, so you might think that eating silkworm pupae, which are left over after farmers extract the silk from cocoons, dates back just as far. In fact, they’re a relatively recent addition to the Korean diet.
According to Youngha Joo, a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies, while people in silk farming villages ate beondegi at least as far back as the 1920s, they weren’t consumed widely until after the Korean War when the government heavily promoted the silk industry, and the countless resulting pupae presented a partial remedy to widespread poverty.
“Beondegi was a source of protein in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Joo says.
As the negative environmental impacts of raising livestock become ever more apparent and the need to feed a growing population more pressing, protein-rich beondegi and other insects are increasingly talked about as a potential fix. In 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a major report on just this subject, noting that at least 2 billion people already eat insects as part of their regular diet.
One chef taking the idea seriously is Joseph Yoon, the Korean-American founder of Brooklyn Bugs, which promotes edible insects as a sustainable source of protein.
“I feel there’s a lot more awareness and appreciation for ancient knowledge, a return to what we’ve done that has worked,” he says. “And so we’re starting to see more and more people turning to older knowledge, including the idea of eating insects — because we’ve eaten insects since the beginning of time.”
Yoon, who likens beondegi’s taste to that of Corn Nuts, fries them with salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes and also uses them to replace beef in japchae, a common dish of stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables.
If you can’t make this snack yourself, though, here are all the best places to try beondegi in South Korea.
Where to eat beondegi in South Korea
Gwangjang Market: Korea’s first permanent market, Gwangjang is famous for its street food, so in addition to beondegi, you’ll find tteokbokki, sundae (blood sausage), noodles, and lots more. The market’s signature dish is bindaetteok, which are crispy and savory mung bean pancakes that pair well with makgeolli, a milky, unrefined rice wine.
Where: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Euljiro Nogari Alley: In the middle of the industrial and increasingly trendy Euljiro neighborhood is this collection of small bars that spill onto the surrounding alleys in warm weather, creating a block-party-like atmosphere. Though the area is named after the anju nogari (dried pollack), many of the bars also serve beondegi-tang.
Where: 129 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul
Pojangmacha Town: Right next to Korea’s most popular beach, this collection of pojangmacha, or street food tents, might just have the country’s best location for informal alfresco dining. In addition to beondegi, there are plenty of seafood-based offerings, like snails and mussels.
Where: 236 Haeundaehaebyeon-ro, Haeundae-gu, Busan
Anhaeng Gwangjang: Anhaeng Gwangjang is a gamaek, a type of small corner store or kiosk that also serves beer and food (the term is a portmanteau of the Korean words for “store” and “beer”). Gamaek are unique to Jeonju, which is hands-down the country’s best city for food. Pop open a cold lager, order some beondegi-tang, and, when you’re done, stroll through Jeonju’s famed Hanok Village.
Where: 42 Anhaeng-ro, Wansan-gu, Jeonju
Soraepo-gu Seafood Market: This wet market is a good introduction to Incheon, a slightly gritty port city where much of life is still connected to the sea. You can pick up a cup of beondegi to snack on while checking out the shrimp, crabs, and squid for sale, or even purchase a large sack of the pupae to take home with you.
Where: 12 Soraeyeok-ro, Namdong-gu, Incheon