The Sweet Side of Asian
A South Korean treat is ready to become an American favorite. By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey

Delimanjoo, the South Korean treat served at Lee's Sandwiches.

 

With its golden sponge cake outside and creamy custard inside, Delimanjoo could be the love child of the all-American Twinkie and a French cream puff. The tiny (about 0.4 ounces each) snack cakes molded in the shape of miniature ears of corn are standard street and subway station fare in South Korea where they were created in the late 1990s. And now this petite pastry has American food bloggers buzzing and has even inspired a batter-to-first-bite video on MySpace.

According to Delice Co. Ltd., the Korean firm that developed the cake and the small-space-friendly patented technology to produce it, the name Delimanjoo is derived from “delicious” and “manjoo” the Korean word for the traditional Chinese snack dim sum. Referring to a sampling of the sweets at a small, independent stand in New York City, a reporter for the Village Voice newspaper observed that these creamy-centered cakes “seem poised to become a local addiction.”

And one growing San Jose-based quick-service chain is hoping to create cravings for the cakes from coast to coast. After seeing how popular the cakes were during a trip to Korea, Chieu Le, a Vietnamese-born entrepreneur who immigrated to the U.S., decided to showcase Delimanjoo at his family’s 34-unit Lee’s Sandwiches chain.

Each Lee’s Sandwich unit dedicates somewhere around 100 square feet to making and merchandising Delimanjoo either in a freestanding kiosk or a in-line counter exhibition set-up. (Delice Co. Ltd. says that the footprint for a Delimanjoo kiosk can be as small as 35 square feet.)

Under brightly colored point-of-sale signage, an operator feeds a thin batter made from a base mix into an automated system that molds the cakes into their signature corn shape (Delice also makes molds in flower, star, and other shapes), bakes them, and pumps them full of custard filling, also made from a base mix.

Lee’s currently sticks with the vanilla custard filling, but will probably test other flavors in the future, says company Executive Vice President Ryan Hubris. The Delimanjoo machine is capable of producing as many as 600 cakes per hour.

Aficionados point out that the out-in-full-view technology is part of the snack’s appeal.

“Watching [the cakes] emerge from a miniature factory is the kind of thing that would stick in a kid’s mind as magic, like watching cotton candy being spun at a fair,” reported the Village Voice.

Lee’s sells them in bags of four pieces for $1 for popping on the go, handle boxes of 12 for $3 for heartier appetites, and boxes of 24 for $6 for sharing.

Many aficionados prefer to eat their Delimanjoo while they are still warm.

“Imagine a miniature Twinkie hot out of the oven, and you’ve got the flavor profile,” wrote a Houston Press reporter.

So far Lee’s has introduced Delimanjoo to its customers in California, Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Although the company had expected to do well in Houston, where the first Lee’s opened in 2006, the enthusiasm for the concept’s reception there surpassed all expectations.

Within a year, the originally 11,000-square-foot store had to be expanded to 16,000 square feet, making it Lee’s largest location. And, after only one year, a second unit was opened in the city. The company also has a five-store franchise deal to develop the Dallas market.

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