Monday, December 28, 2020

[Food] Geonppang (건빵, Hardtack)


[Food] Geonppang (건빵, Hardtack)

I'm so sure that anyone who has done military service for their country can not forget this little, hard buddy. Even though you get sick of this little thing, you're not exempt because this buddy is the food most frequently eaten during the time of military service.

Geonppang (건빵, hardtack) is very hard, super dry but sweet and savory. It's usually made of flour but can be cooked with barley, brown rice and sesame for better taste and texture.

It is believed that hardtack originates from ancient Egypt, and was eaten by many soldiers in ancient history. The modern form, 'geonppang', that is usually eaten in Korea today was actually invented in Japan in 1904. The Japanese army invented 'ganpan (hardtack in Japanese)' to supply food to their soldiers.

When you first join the army, geonppang is the first friend that you become familiar with. This light, dry snack in a small plastic bag fits easily into your pocket and is easy to take out from your pocket to eat too, no matter the time or place. I remember eating 2-3 bags of geonppang daily during outdoor strategic training.

When I did my military service near DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) near the boundary with North Korea, I remember one very cold and snowy day. On the evening that day, my soldiers and I realized that it was the birthday of our army surgeon, who was our superior (I served as an emergency medic in the Korean army). Again, it was a very cold and snowy day. We couldn't drive any car down to the market in the nearby village because it would take too much time (more than 2 hours) and the mountainous supply road was already frozen, which was very risky.

So we put our heads together to arrange a birthday party with a cake to our dear surgeon. We brought out 6-7 bags of geonppang (hardtack) and ran to the kitchen of the mess hall. We explained our birthday party plan for the surgeon to army cooks, and they were happy to join our plan. We ground (crushed) geonppang with our bombproof helmet to make grain powder out of geonppang, and whipped egg yolk in the snow to make sweet and white cream. We made cake dough with geonppang powder and baked a small cake with a microwave (there was no oven, sadly). Then we topped the cake with white cream from the egg yolk. Everything was complete.

My soldiers and I went to the surgeon's office, knocked on the door and said "Sir, we've got some problems. You need to see this, sir."

The surgeon came out of his office with a cranky face which turned surprised and happy when we shouted "Happy Birthday, Sir!" We sang him a birthday song. He was a usually taciturn and brusque man, but he responded, "I'm very touched", blushing at his surprise birthday party.

Yeah, he must've been surprised because he couldn't think we could make a cake out of dry, tasteless and hard geonppang...but you know, you can do anything with a few ingredients and a strong soldier-like spirit.

Some years later, the surgeon moved to an army hospital in metropolitan city. Before I was discharged from the army, I met him by chance at the army hospital he was working in, and he said, "That was the one of the most touching moments in my life".

Geonppang is a very simple snack (it tastes better when it's deep fried and sugar-coated) but it's a very special friend to many people in Korea :)

Bon Appétit!

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating - I've never heard of hardtack. I'm amazed how you write these articles in such depth. Thank you so much!