“Dalgona coffee” has emerged as one of the biggest food trends of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps second only to bread baking. The frothy, whipped coffee is made by vigorously mixing instant coffee and sugar, and it’s now unavoidable on basically all social media platforms. As we wrote late last month, the phrase “dalgona coffee” is fairly new, having picked up interest in late February; it’s surged since then.
The current trend—which shares a name with Korea’s version of honeycomb candy—owes its popularity to Korean YouTubers, and what kicked this all off was a Korean TV clip uploaded in January of the actor Jung Il Woo trying a whipped coffee drink in Macau, according to the South China Morning Post. “Isn’t that like sweet sugar candy?” says one of the commentators—hence, “dalgona coffee.” The trend picked up online, and spun out as people all over the world found themselves stuck inside with pantry ingredients and social media.
But as the drink becomes more and more viral globally, its origins and even its name are being disputed as multiple cultures lay claim to their own versions. What’s now clear is that the history and significance of whipped instant coffee goes way farther back than just a pandemic-inspired social media trend.
It’s easiest to connect “dalgona coffee” to Macau. The small shipyard café where Jung tried the drink is Hon Kee Café, which former shipbuilder Leong Kam Hon opened in the 90s after a workplace accident resulted in the near-amputation of his arm. Though his arm was reattached, its weakened state made him consider alternate careers, so he started the café for shipyard workers, as CNN reported in 2013. In the process of opening it, he learned kung fu, which helped him regain strength and also proved useful for making the labor-intensive coffee drink.
Leong told CNN that he learned the technique of repeatedly stirring instant coffee into a frothy texture in the early 2000s from a “foreign couple” who attended the Macau Grand Prix every year, though he didn’t know where exactly they were from. The grounds are stirred so intensely that “dalgona coffee” is now also being referred to online as “400x coffee,” which suggests that it’s been stirred at least 400 times. Leong found the technique “so troublesome” that he usually opted for regular old coffee.
Then, in 2004, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actor Chow Yun-Fat visited Hon Kee. In an attempt to impress the actor, Leong made the whipped coffee drink. The actor loved it, which sent people to the struggling café to try the drink themselves; it briefly became known as “Chow Yun-Fat coffee,” according to CNN. Though the effects of that fame were temporary, the hand-stirred coffee remains the café’s signature item, judging by its reviews on TripAdvisor.
Though Leong doesn’t know where the couple was from, this technique for making coffee is popular in so many places around the world that it could really be anywhere.
According to many food blogs, older YouTube videos, and a recent report from the Economic Times, the drink has long been known in India and Pakistan by many names, including: “pheta (beaten) coffee,” “phenti hui coffee,” “phitti hui coffee,” “hand-beaten coffee,” “Indian cappuccino,” and other similar variations. No matter what it’s called, it’s made exactly the same way as “dalgona coffee”: by whipping instant coffee and sugar until thick and frothy, and then serving it with milk.
The drink’s reach extends further. In Greece, it’s known as a “frappe,” and it’s been called the country’s “unofficial national drink.” In Libya—where the drink is referred to as “cappuccino Libyan style” or simply as Nescafé, like the instant coffee brand—the drink is so common that large families and cafés might even keep the mixture in the fridge to use as needed, according to the blog We Are Food. As HuffPo pointed out in a 2017 post about the “Indian cappuccino,” the process is similar to the technique used for Cuba’s iconic café cubanos, though the Cuban drink differs slightly in that it involves whipping hot espresso with sugar.
Though Americans aren’t so keen on it, a large percentage of the world prefers instant coffee. Instant coffee made up “more than 34 percent of all the retail brewed coffee consumed around the world,” according to industry data, with most of its popularity in Asia, Australia, and Eastern Europe. Not only is the hand-beaten coffee method a way of making a simple drink more lively, but it’s also a way to approximate drinks that might otherwise require milk, a milk frother, or an espresso machine when you don’t have those things at home.
It makes sense that as Korea now gets credit for “dalgona coffee,” people from other cultures are putting up their defenses about the drink’s newfound fame. In a popular Twitter thread, one user shared hesitance toward the idea that people are “being blown away by the ‘discovery'” of the technique, adding that the Greek-style frappe owes its existence to milk shortages.
India Today, meanwhile, has likened the popularity of “dalgona coffee” to the co-opting of turmeric milk, writing: “Well, the West has just discovered Dalgona Coffee and is going crazy over their latest obsession. But wait. Isn’t that just plain old Phenti Hui Coffee we have been making at home for years?”
Perhaps what social media has really made clear is that, across the world, our consumption habits have more in common than we once thought. Globally, hand-beaten coffee drinks are a simple, household staple created out of necessity, but as Americans increasingly adopt the trend, it’s easy to see them going down a similar path to “turmeric lattes” in the United States. “Columbusing,” a slang term that refers to when white people act as though they have “discovered” something that has long existed around the world, usually leads to its rebranding and upscaling as it’s marketed to upper middle class, white Americans. As writer Khushbu Shah explained in Taste in 2018, what she knew as a homemade illness remedy became an $8 a cup “Gold Latte” in New York and a $7 “Golden Herbal Tonic” in Los Angeles once the wellness crowd became aware of the concept.
With coffee shops doing slim business amid the pandemic, it might be a while until we see a $7 cup of “dalgona coffee” on the menu, but it seems inevitable. Whenever that happens, let’s remember that the drink is really meant to be something made at home—all it takes is a little effort and a lot of stirring.