Michael Kim, owner of Ihwamun Ice Cream, makes and rotates about 36 flavors through his shop in the Little Tokyo Galleria. The choices range from classics like chocolate and vanilla to more trendy scoops such as chai latte and matcha. Kim sources his organic dairy base from Straus Family Creamery, up north in Petaluma. The ice creams are all densely textured, not airy, and concentrated with quality ingredients. The flavors closest to his heart, however, are the tastes that impart stories, rooted with historical and cultural meaning, about his homeland of Korea.
The shop’s name, Ihwamun, comes from the imperial seal of the short-lived Korean Empire (1897 to 1910), when north and south were one land before the Japanese-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910, which began Japan's decades-long practical rule of Korea. The shop’s logo and the Korean imperial seal both feature a stylized plum blossom. And, yes, plum-flavored ice cream and tea are offered at Ihwamun.
When Kim thought about opening an ice cream shop, he wished to steer clear of a trendy-looking place that resembled an Apple Store. “I wanted to make my store more traditional-looking with a Korean name and concept,” said Kim. As for reminding his fellow Koreans or informing those who are unaware of his country’s past, Kim says, “To me, the division of Korea is the greatest tragedy today. There is not a Korean alive who has not been affected in some way. Maybe, if not them, their parents or grandparents ... somebody who has been affected by this war.”
His theory that Korean-Americans are forgetting their heritage is another impetus. Kim said, “It’s always nice to see young Korean-Americans come in and try a flavor they don’t know, but once they taste it, they’ll say something like, ‘Oh, this tastes like the thing my mom bought.’”
Some of these esoteric flavors tap into the older Korean generation's sense of nostalgia, as hearing an old song would. Ingredients such as injeolmi, yakgwa or Choco Pies can usher these taste buds down memory lane or, perhaps, inspire a conversation about traditions of long ago.
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Injeolmi is a traditional Korean rice cake, much like mochi, typically dusted with roasted soybean powder; it was given to newlyweds to symbolize a strong bond so they “stick together forever.” Back in 1974, Choco Pie, a Korean version of the American moon pie, was introduced to South Korea and became an instant hit. Readily available today in most Asian markets, many Koreans attach fond feelings of yesteryear to the confection. The treat also enjoys a decent cameo in the 2000 South Korean film Joint Security Area, directed by Park Chan-wook.
The ingredient mixed into Ihwamun’s ice cream with the most history is yakgwa, which translated means “medicinal snack”; it is a fried cookie made with honey and sesame oil. (Honey is thought of as healthful, hence the "medicinal" modifier.) Yakgwa is believed to go back in Korean history as long ago as “the time of Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935 AD) over 1,000 years ago,” said Kim. The crunchy cookies are broken into small pieces and folded into the ice cream. Both the yakgwa cookies and the injeolmi’s roasted soybean powder are procured from the venerable Poong Nyun Rice Bakery at the Koreatown Plaza.
Kim wants you to experience Ihwamun as more than just another ice cream shop incorporating Asian ingredients of the moment. “Ihwamun is sort of a tribute to the last time our country was one unified, independent state.”
333 S. Alameda St., Ste. 103, Little Tokyo; (213) 537-0380, ihwamun.com.