Sobok Cafe has been around for a while now. It opened in Hongdae in 2014 and promptly appeared on Tasty Road, which of course made it almost impossible to just drop by on a weekend for ages. Things have settled down now, but I still thought it was better to visit on a weekday. Sobok offers bingsu, ice cream and a unique kind of injeolmi (bean-flour-coated rice cakes). Their ice cream is made in house from brown rice, milk and a variety of other grains. They make the rice cakes, too, which sometimes means that their doors don’t always open on time, which contributes to the line that even now sometimes still forms out front.
When I first saw the name written in hangul, I thought it was a reference to the plain white hanbok traditionally worn for mourning — a bit of an odd choice, but perhaps a reference to the simplicity of the product. But if you take a look at the hanja — 昭福 — it’s a different so and a different bok. This so character means bright or clear, and the character for bok is the same one used in 행복, or happy — it means, basically, good fortune. So much for my hangul skills, I guess.
The ice cream is sweetened with jocheong, a traditional sweet rice syrup I’ve been pretty much obsessed with since I went down to Damyang to see it made in the traditional way (along with yeot — Korean taffy — which I thought I hated until I tried the real thing). Basically, rice flour is mixed with malt and water and fermented, simmered, fermented some more, simmered some more, until it becomes a thick honey-like syrup that can also be cooked down even more and stretched to make yeot. I say honey-like, but it is much thicker and stickier and has a cleaner, brighter flavor.
The ice cream is topped with sweet squash jellies and one of Sobok’s injeolmi balls. Injeolmi is a kind of Korean rice cake made from glutinous rice flour and coated in bean flour. Sobok’s version is essentially that, but filled in the center with their brown rice ice cream. At first, the ice cream is light and somewhat savory — it’s not actually savory. It’s 고소하다, a word I’ve spent a year’s worth of food writing trying to find a fair English equivalent for. The go-to example Koreans always give is roasted sesame seeds, and that seems fair enough. Warm, rich and toasty. That’s what this ice cream tastes like.
As you move toward the bottom, you start to hit the jocheong, which has been topped with a variety of roasted seeds. There are also more sweet squash jellies.
Probably the most interesting thing on the menu is the sweet potato ice cream cone. The cone is actually made of sweet potato coated in jocheong and sprinkled with seeds. It’s filled with the same brown rice ice cream. It might sound gross, but surely no more gross in theory than what Americans do to sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving. I don’t personally think marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes are the way to go, but the ice cream was nice. It’s not a combination of flavors you get to try every day, but it wasn’t weird. The sweet potato added another level of texture to the ice cream, which is what a cone is there for, and the rice syrup acted as a barrier to keep you from getting a mouthful of soaked, soggy mush. It was warm (in flavor, obviously) and delicious.
What I really like about this place is the respect for tradition combined with a willingness to adapt. You see surprisingly little innovation and recreation of traditional Korean foods and ingredients — what you see, instead, is a lot of simplifying, cheapening and mechanicalization. That’s precisely why I didn’t know I actually love yeot until last year. The people who stick to the old way of doing things are damn important — they are the foundation and the teachers of the next generation. But the people who are willing to go the next step further are the ones who make others think twice about leaving the past behind entirely. I’m glad I didn’t have to stand in a line to try Sobok, but I dare say it would have been worth it.
서울 마포구 어울마당로 58
58 Eoulmadang-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul