Heart-shaped boxes full of sweet treats may only seem fitting for Valentine’s Day, but Korean markets and street food stalls say otherwise.
Starting in early November, stores and vendors throughout South Korea stock up on a vast assortment of the popular snack Pepero, according to Ji-Hye Lee, a writer for The Korea Times. These chocolate-covered biscuit sticks are at the core of the beloved holiday, Pepero Day, and are one of many food products trademarked by Lotte Corporation.
Before it became such an iconic treat, Pepero was commonly shared among middle and high school female students. The exact year and location in which Pepero Day first began is unknown. But, it is believed to have been started by two middle school students who exchanged Pepero in hopes of becoming tall and slim like the sticks, according to WNUR News speaker Emily Kim. The date November 11 was specifically chosen because 11/11 resembles two pairs of Pepero sticks.
Kim further elaborated on the myth of Pepero Day: if a person eats eleven packets of Pepero in eleven seconds at 11:11 AM or PM on November 11, they will become thin. Although this is the likely origin of the holiday, it has evolved over time and is now celebrated similarly to Valentine’s Day.
It is most common for romantic partners to exchange Pepero as an expression of love, but family, friends and coworkers can also share the snack to show appreciation for each other, says Lee. With flavors ranging from hazelnut to strawberry to cookies and cream, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
There is, however, a history of cultural conflict behind Pepero Day. The Japan-based Ezaki Glico Co. has long accused Lotte Corporation of copying one of its signature products, Pocky.
Glico launched its chocolate-covered pretzel sticks in 1966 and initiated Pocky Day in 1999 as a promotional event, according to Alastair Gale, a writer for The Wall Street Journal. The exact date for Pocky Day is written as 11/11/11, which denotes the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the then-current Japanese emperor’s reign; it is also a reference to the shape of Pocky sticks.
Meanwhile, Lotte began producing Pepero in 1983, and around the early 1990s, introduced Pepero Day based on the story of the two students in order to boost sales. Glico stands by its claim that Pepero is a copy of Pocky. Lotte, with 50% of annual Pepero sales occurring between September and November, denies this and continues to defend its products and promotional events.
The conflict between the two companies continues amidst ongoing cultural tensions between South Korea and Japan, which can be traced back hundreds of years through colonialism and war.
Nevertheless, Pepero Day is celebrated across South Korea as a part of local culture and tradition. Sharing the same date as Garaetteok (가래떡) Day (an annual celebration of a traditional rice cake symbolizing long life and prosperity), families and communities can come together and express their affection for one another with both these foods.
This November, look out for these chocolate-covered snacks in your nearest supermarket and show your loved ones how much they mean to you.