Edible any way: Sweet Potatoes in Korea

In a previous post, you have been introduced to the Korean look of the ‘regular’ potato.🥔 Now, let’s take a look at their relative – the sweet potato! 🍠 Thanksgiving is coming up in the US, where sweet potatoes aka yams are popular guests at the dinner table. If you’re tired of them showing up the classic way, perhaps the following lines can inspire your kitchen.

Sweet potatoes as toppings on pizzas🍕 or sandwiched between layers of bread🥪 are common sights, which should not come as surprising, if you are familiar with Korean culinary customs regarding potatoes. After all, “sweet potato pizza” is a standard at most Korean pizza stores and one of the few vegetarian options available. [Do not expect to find Pizza Margherita in Korean pizzerias!]

But sweet potatoes are SWEET! 🍠🍭 Why mix them with something savory? 🍠🍕

Er… Because you can? Come on! It is not SUCH an other-worldly thing these days… 🙄 Peanut butter is sweet and salty. 🥜🍭 And there are chocolate-covered pretzels – a popular treat in the US. 🍫🥨 Last but not least, caramel with sea salt is a common flavor combination by now. 🍬🌊

Anyhow… Since sweet potatoes are sweet, how about having them for dessert?

Like… in cake? 🍠🍰

Sweet potatoes in cake? 🤔 Why not! 💡 After all, we celebrate carrot cake, which contains conspicuous amounts of carrots – a similar (?) vegetable! 🥕🍰

Soooo…. how about a cake like this:

Purple Sweet Potato cake at “Innisfree Cafe” 이니스프리카페, Seoul 2016.

Or a tarte:

Tarte filled with pumpkin and purple sweet potato mousse at vegan cafe “The Bread Blue” 더브레드블루, Seoul 2019.

Or ice cream: 🍠🍦

Ice cream and tiramisu flavored with purple sweet potato at cafe Bora 카페보라, Seoul 2019.

Isn’t the color fascinating? 🍠🤩💜 Apart from these eye-catching examples, you can find various desserts such as Korean rice cakes (tteok 떡) 🍠🍡 or bakery products either flavored with ground sweet potato, filled with sweet potato (chunks, mousse, paste etc.) or both. 🍠🍞🍠🍩

In fact, sweet potatoes have been a flavor-giving ingredient in Korean desserts long before chocolate and green tea powder (aka Korean nokcha or Japanese matcha) set off for their world domination campaigns… 🍫🌎🍵🏆

In Korea, you can even drink sweet potatoes! ☕️ If it’s too late in the day for a caffeinated drink and you don’t feel like hot chocolate, then how about sweet potato latte? In theory, it is what the name implies – sweet potato with milk. 🍠🥛 In reality, it’s more often a powder with sweet potato flavor, food coloring and sugar mixed into milk than actual sweet potato and milk blended together. Alternatively, it’s made by stirring a sweetened puree or syrup with sweet potato flavor into milk-like liquids. Notwithstanding, it is quite a nourishing beverage with comfort food potential. 🛋🛏 A liquid meal to go. 🥡🥤 And although you might not have the chance to select the color of sweet potato 💛💜, you often have a choice between a hot or iced beverage. ❄️♨️

Food stall selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts.

Then, of course, sweet potatoes can also be enjoyed simply as they are! In Korea, they are a perfect vegan🌱 snack, frequently available in boiled, steamed or roasted form and sold on the road by street vendors as well as some convenience stores.

So if you are in need of a nutritious snack or an outdoor meal, look out for cooked or steamed sweet potatoes (jjin-goguma 찐고구마) or roasted sweet potatoes (gun-goguma 군고구마). Just be careful not to burn your hands, if they are fresh from the oven!🔥

Perhaps, you find sweet potatoes also attractive in dried form: Long sweet potato strips which provide the ideal chewing exercise for your jaws. [Who needs gum, beef jerky or even fingernails to gnaw on when concentrating anyways!] At present, there are various types of such “dried sweet potatoes” (goguma-malaengi 고구마말랭이). The old-fashioned goguma-malaengi contain added sugars and are manufactured in a process similar to dried mango, dried papaya or orange peel – actually more like candied fruit! More modern versions are made from sweet potatoes, which have been dehydrated by machines without the use of sugar syrup. Depending on the brand, these may be produced either from sweet potato puree, which has been filled into molds to create sweet potato strips with uniform shapes (e.g. brand “Chew” 츄). Alternatively, cooked or roasted sweet potatoes are cut and dehydrated without further treatment, so the resulting sweet potato strips have random lengths and sizes. Home recipes for goguma-malaengi suggest to slowly dry pieces of sweet potatoes in an oven. Unless otherwise stated, those variations of dried sweet potatoes consist of 100% sweet potato and are thus 100% vegan. 🍠🌱

Besides boiled, steamed, roasted and dried,
Koreans also love sweet potatoes fried!

And there are several ways of frying them! For one, there is the standard method of coating things in batter and then deep-frying them (similar to Japanese tempura). Applying this on sweet potatoes results in Korean goguma-twigim (고구마 튀김), which are slices of sweet potatoes with a soft center underneath a crispy, golden crust – a favorite at many street food stalls! Another indulgent street food item involving deep-frying is mattang (맛탕). For this dish, chunks of sweet potato are first deep-fried and afterwards caramelized in sugar. A sticky and ideally also crunchy experience for the sweet-toothed.

Now, what else could there be? 🤔💭 Did you think of sweet potato fries, yet? 🍟 ALMOST correct! Koreans have goguma-seutik (고구마스틱)! Unlike the sweet potato fries which you might be familiar with, these super-thin, deep-fried sweet potato “sticks” are quite dry, rather hard and very crunchy! Nowadays, you can find them at snack shops on the street, inside subway stations or at those Korean rest areas of high ways.

Purple sweet potato chips and mini apples.

If you enjoy nibbling on something crunchy, then how about sweet potato chips? Fans of potato chips, however, be warned: Korean sweet potato chips (goguma chipseu 고구마 칩스) are often not savory and may even come with an additional sugary coating! 🍭

As you can see, sweet potatoes are a very versatile ingredient in Korea. And there are many types of sweet potatoes as well! Koreans distinguish between sweet potatoes according to size, color and texture. Just to mention the most distinct ones: The “purple sweet potatoes” (jeok-goguma 적고구마 / jasaek-goguma 자색고구마), which are most prominent in dessert items because of their color, are actually rarely found in raw form. 💜 Those which are light yellow inside and have a dry mouthfeel are called “chestnut sweet potato” (bam-goguma 밤고구마), as their taste is reminiscent of chestnuts. 🌰💛 There are also types with orange-colored and more juicy flesh – those are called hobak-goguma (호박고구마), which means – guess what! – “pumpkin sweet potato”. 🎃🧡

Various types of sweet potatoes at a traditional market in Seoul, August 2019.
Dry Dangmyeon sold lose (front) and pre-packaged (back) at a traditional market.

But besides these obvious instances, sweet potatoes can be discovered in other parts of Korean cuisine as well! For example, the starch of sweet potatoes is the base of noodles that are called dangmyeon (당면) in Korean. When dry, these noodles are grayish but they turn transparent when cooked. Their texture is soft and rather chewy – not to be confused with noodles made from wheat, rice or other types of glass noodles, which are often made from mung bean flour. Since they absorb flavors very well, these sweet potato noodles are popular in a couple of stews and stir-fry dishes. A famous dish featuring dangmyeon is Japchae (잡채). For this veggie-friendly dish, the noodles are stir-fried, mixed with various vegetables and mushrooms (occasionally egg🥚, fish cake🐟 or meat🐄) and seasoned with soy sauce.

Raw sweet potato tubers, sweet potato leaves and skinned sweet potato leaf stalks, Seoul 2019.

Apart from the tuber 🍠, Koreans also know how to turn parts of the green plant into food!🌱 Yes! The entire plant does not need to be wasted after harvesting the tubers!!! Traditionally, Koreans use the leaves’ stalks in preparing vegetable side dishes (namul banchan 나물반찬) or by adding them into soups and stews. But in order to make them edible (and chew-able), the leaves are removed and the tough, magenta-colored skin is peeled off! This is a lot of manual work and it takes time and patience to skin an amount large enough for consumption. These edible leaf stalks of sweet potato plants are called goguma-sun (고구마순) or goguma-julgi (고구마줄기) in Korean.

With the harvest of new sweet potatoes in late summer, also sweet potato leaves are on sale. If you then visit a traditional market in Korea, you may observe vendors diligently peeling the stalks as they wait for customers. This is the best time for fresh sweet potato leaf stalks! Outside the season, they are available only in dried form. Although dishes featuring fresh or dried sweet potato stalks remain the same, the cooking process varies and there are differences in taste, color and texture.

In summary, sweet potatoes are an ubiquitous and flexible food item. In Korean cuisine, the tubers🍠 as well as the greens🌿 are consumed and most of the resulting foods are either vegan by default or veggie-friendly! 🌱 The tubers, which come in various colors, flavors and sizes, are starring in sweets, snacks as well as main dishes. Sweet potato leaf stalks, then, feature as a green addition to a number of other dishes.

Roasted sweet potato from a street vendor.

Especially during the colder months, sweet potatoes are precious companions. 🧣❄️🧤 On a chilly and lonely winter day, what better treat is there than an oven-roasted sweet potato? Hold it tight or keep it in your pocket, and it lovingly warms your skin. ✋🍠🔥 Unwrap it and its golden insides delight your taste buds, while its sweet breath tickles your nose. 👅🍠♨️ It’s a natural heat pack and energy bar dressed in magenta. 👚💖

6 thoughts on “Edible any way: Sweet Potatoes in Korea

Add yours

  1. Fun read as always! Learned so much!
    I love that purple colour there!
    Pleas take me to the place with the purple tart! 😍🤤
    I wish I could have purple yams here. I’ve only found them once at the groceries as an import. Yams are now very slowly discovered by local German farmers but orange seems to be the only colour in my area.
    Cheers! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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