If you follow the ups and downs of quarantine trends, you’d have reason to believe that TikTok birthed a sweet, high-caffeine coffee drink called dalgona, which slowly, then quickly, took over our kitchens. Dalgona is a whipped drink made with instant coffee, sugar, and milk. Over the past month and a half, influencers, celebrities, and anyone with some spare time on their hands have put their forearms to good use to whip up this supposedly new coffee trend.
The only thing is that it’s far from new. Its modern popularity stems from a South Korean TV show, but similar whipped instant coffee drinks can be found around the world, including India, Pakistan, Greece, and Macau. This is the twisting, multi-layered story of how what’s now known as dalgona coffee came to be.
Why is it called dalgona coffee?
The name everyone knows today is just about the only straightforward piece of the dalgona coffee story. The current trend in the United States can be traced back to January in Korea, when a clip on a show called Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant featured actor Jung Il-woo ordering a coffee in Macau.
In the show, a panel comments in real time on the video of the coffee being made. As a two-to-two ratio of instant coffee and sugar is whipped (400 times, according to the video), it turns to a light brown mixture. One of the commenters says, “Isn’t that like sweet sugar candy?” The candy in reference is dalgona, which means “honeycomb toffee” in Korean.
Dalgona is a candy that became popular after the Korean War in the early 1950s, according to the South China Morning Post. Parents looking to make affordable sweets for their children heated sugar and water and then added baking soda. When the mixture cooled, it became an airy candy that’s sweet at first and slightly bitter toward the end.
Our assistant food and drink editor Elisabeth Sherman tried to make dalgona coffee at home, by whipping together instant coffee, palm sugar, and two tablespoons of hot water with her hand mixer. The process didn’t go as smoothly as it does in some of the more popular TikTok videos: Counterintuitively, the hand mixer didn’t speed up the process, and when the ingredients did finally come together, it didn’t have the same satisfying cloudy, puffiness. Once it touched the milk in her glass it deflated almost instantly, but it did satisfy her latte craving.
YouTubers and social media stars who replicated the recipe from the original video clip had better luck: It has more than 12 million views at the time of this story, and the drink is now nicknamed dalgona coffee and 400 stir coffee. In the US, meanwhile, Google search trends show that “TikTok coffee” is one of the most popular ways people are searching for the recipe.
Who created dalgona coffee?
This is where things get complicated. Foods are not made in isolation, and several cultures have a type of whipped coffee made with sugar and instant coffee. Though people in the US and Western Europe typically prefer to use ground coffee beans, people in much of Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of South America opt for instant, according to a report by the market research company Euromonitor.
The availability of instant coffee has led to variations on whipped instant drinks for decades. In India, it’s called phenti hui coffee. A writer for India’s Economic Times noted that the drink is “something which was a treat for countless Indians before the advent of fancy coffee bars and brands is now being remarketed on social media.” Vice reports that the hand-beaten coffee has long been popular in both Pakistan and India.
In Greece, the drink dates to 1957 and is called a frappe. There, the story goes, it was invented by a Nescafe representative and became so popular that it’s still sold in cafes and restaurants around the country. The drink is just as common in Libya as well.
In Macau, where Jung Il-woo tried the drink, the beverage stems from an abandoned shipyard. After nearly losing his arm during an industrial accident in the late 1980s, Leong Kam Hon opened a coffee shop called Hon Kee in 1990 to serve workers at the port. CNN spoke with him in 2013 and got the story on the “kung fu coffee master” (kung fu was one of the ways Leong Kam Hon rebuilt strength in his arm).
An English-speaking couple became yearly regulars at Hon Kee during the Grand Prix in the early 2000s. Leong Kam Hon never learned their nationality, but he did learn from them how to make a foamy coffee drink from whipped instant coffee. The actor Chow Yun-Fat, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, visited Hon Kee in 2004 and loved the coffee. From then on, it became known as “Chow Yun-Fat coffee,” according to CNN. At least until Jung Il-woo showed up.
The rest of the story is modern internet history. Shortly after the Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant clip made the coffee drink popular in Korea, it made it to the US with the help of TikTok user @imhannahcho.
“I never expected dalgona coffee to get this popular,” Jung Il-woo told the New York Times.
But if there’s one thing to know about internet food trends, it’s that it all has to start from somewhere, and all it takes is one person with a large following to make it popular.