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: 🍠🍦

Soft serve ice cream with sweet potato flavor and purple sweet potato tiramisu 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 you get them 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. 🍠🌱

Beside 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 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 mouth feel 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 beside 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 will be 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 processes vary 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, pose 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. 👚💖

Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan Bingsu

Summer is supposedly over, the traditional Korean calendar announced ‘the onset of autumn’ (ipchu 입추 立秋) already on August 8, 2019. 🍃 But temperatures are still high – somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius or 85 degrees Fahrenheit. ☀️🌡💦 It is still pretty hot. It is still a weather that demands for cool, refreshing drinks and ice cream or gelato or bingsu (빙수) or all of it… 🍹🍦🍨🍧 Don’t you think? 😎⛱

I’ve been cafe-hunting this week and ate so many frozen desserts in a row… 🤪 Never had a better excuse to eat ice cream and bingsu so that now I am able to present the following: A new page added to the category “Eating Out in Seoul” featuring our all-beloved frozen desserts in its various shapes, colors and textures…….👇

➡️ 🍓🍨🍦 Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan bingsu 🍧❄️🍍 ⬅️

❄️🍓❄️🍒❄️🍑❄️🍌❄️🍋❄️🍊❄️🍐❄️🍎❄️🍏❄️🥭❄️🍍❄️🥥❄️🥝❄️

Yes, ice cream, bingsu and other frozen treats are THIS important.

For easy-to-go ice cream, which you can find in regular supermarkets and convenience stores, simply refer to this list on a previous post.

[I know I’m an addict. But I also know I’m not the only one. 😜]

Easy-to-go vegan ice cream in Korea

These days, I often find myself thinking “Need… water… need… ice…” 🌡☀️😵

In an unstoppable impulse to find something that would quickly bring relief ❄️, I rummaged through various ice boxes, looking for ice cream. 🍦 (To be more precise, those of the popsicle kind – the “single servings”.) While checking the loooong labels with TINY letters on the colorful packaging, its contents were on the verge of melting [unforgivable sin!] and it felt like I would soon get more than just strange looks from shopkeepers… 😅

Even when something looked like it was a simple, water-based popsicle, its ingredient list surprisingly often revealed that there was some kind of animal component hidden inside. Beside mysterious additives for sweetness🍭, aromas👅 and color🌈, there was milk powder🥛, dairy-based calcium🥛 and gelatin🐷 [yikes!]! And sadly enough, those ingredients were not always marked in the allergen section. 🚫📝

Furthermore, even if one kind of ice cream contained only plant-based ingredients, that didn’t mean that another flavor of the same kind was also vegan. 🚫🌱Seriously each one needed confirmation.

🍦 It can be hard to find good ice cream.

But who thought the hunt for VEGAN ice cream would be this difficult and frustrating? 🌱🍦

[Whether the available vegan options are delightful after all, is a whole new topic…😣]

Anyhow, here’s a collection of meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free (though not guilt-free) vegan ice cream, which are commonly sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

✍️ This compilation is valid in summer 2019 and may gradually expand as (hopefully) new discoveries are made. ✍️

I’m an ice cream junkie, I know. 🍦🍨😍🍧❄️

If you have more time, money and patience to go to a (vegan) cafe that serves vegan ice cream, congratulations. Enjoy that blissful moment for me, while you’re at it!

So where ARE those cafes with vegan ice cream? 🍨 They are rare and more expensive than regular ice cream places… 💲😓 Currently, there exist merely a handful of such locations in Seoul. You can find an overview of sit-in locations serving various kinds of home-made frozen desserts on this page. 🛋💁‍♂️🍨🙋‍♀️

And what do YOU do in the heat of summer, when you don’t have access to your freezer (which is ideally filled with frozen fruit) but you are in desperate need of that sweet and refreshing cool-down THIS VERY INSTANT??? 🌊🤯❄️

[This is a serious question. Very curious about other survival strategies.]

Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.

Triple P: Gamja-jeon 감자전

Korean potato pancakes served with dipping sauce.

Three syllables:

gam 감.
ja 자.
jeon 전.

Three ingredients:

– potatoes
– salt
– vegetable oil.

What does this result in?

Three words:

Pure
Potato
Pancakes.

In other words, gamja-jeon is a type of Korean pancake, which mainly consists of potatoes. The pancake batter does not contain eggs 🚫🥚 nor cereals 🚫🌾, making this dish originally vegan and gluten free. In short, finely ground potatoes are fried on a hot pan or iron plate in plenty of oil, until they turn slightly brown. The final pancakes are either cut into small pieces or served whole, after which they may be individually torn into bite-sized portions using chopsticks. Since the batter itself is hardly seasoned, these pancakes come with a corresponding dip, which is based on soy sauce, and are thus a savory dish.

Gamja-jeon roughly resemble hash browns🇺🇸, German Kartoffelpuffer🇩🇪 or Swiss Rösti🇨🇭, but upon looking closely, the ingredients, way of serving, taste and texture of each are different. Even inside Korea, there will be variations regarding the size, toppings, thickness and texture of this type of potato pancake. 🥞🥔 Only rarely are there other vegetables added to the basic potato batter. Hence, an alternative name for this dish could be “plain potato pancake”.

Where to find:
In Korean culture, gamja-jeon is a dish typically (but not necessarily) consumed in combination with alcohol, thus it belongs to the food category anju (안주). 🍶 Correspondingly, these potato pancakes are mostly found in Korean pubs, which offer traditional liquors such as makgeolli (막걸리 – rice wine) or soju (소주). But it is absolutely not obligatory to drink alcohol to enjoy these! In Korean pubs, the food is expensive and the drinks are cheap, so it’s okay to order only pancakes, which cost between 10.000 and 15.000 KRW per serving. Just be aware of the fact that Korean pancakes are customarily shared and snacked on while drinking in company 👥 – this is also why their price is higher than non-anju dishes in regular restaurants. In either way, make sure to enjoy the pancakes while they are hot (and crispy)! 🤤 They taste slightly different at each location and peoples’ preferences vary. Personally, I like gamja-jeon best, when the outside is crispy and the potato dough is chewy inside! It’s one of my comfort foods – greasy, savory and crispy – something I crave especially after a hangover… 🍻🤪💥🤢

Thick, medium-sized potato pancakes decorated with chili

After all, gamja-jeon combines also these three concepts in one:
🥞 Pancakes
🥂 Drinking
🥔 Plant-power (👉 vegan🌱).

Maybe I should add a few more “p“s to its title…

Fast Food Fashion of South Korea

Balli balli!” (빨리! 빨리!) Move fast, act immediately, there’s no time! Anyone who visits Seoul will quickly notice how many people appear to be in a rush in whatever they do. Some may call this impatient and short-tempered, others may consider this behavior as targeted at optimization of processes. In the end it might be a mixture of both. 🤷‍♂️

In connection with this collective mindset, there is the phenomenon that the entire city of Seoul is changing rapidly: New buildings arise out of nowhere, businesses open and shut down within a few months, and the smartphone you purchased last year is already too old to attract potential pickpockets. The same is true for various expressions of contemporary culture, such as fashion trends, hair styles and nail art. But did you know that there exists also such a thing as food fashion? In South Korea, it certainly does!

Food fashion???

YES! Of course!

Food is more than just something to fuel your body with energy. [D’uh!]

Food is creatively developed to please all your senses. Ideally, the sensory experience includes that its immaculate outer appearance attracts your attention, after which you will be seduced by its mouthwatering scent. When you touch it, you can feel its texture and discover that it consists of multiple layers, from the outer crust towards the interior. In your mouth, then, your tongue further explores the transmuting textures and plays with the pieces of food. Released is its unique taste – seasoned perfectly in balance with the bliss point. The taste is addictive. You want to take another bite. And another bite… And another… [Note to self: Better stop here. By that I mean indulging in eating as well as further remarks!]

Object of desire?
Tofu pasta at ‘Green Pantry’ in Seoul, spring 2019.

In short, food is designed. It is the product of a process, which requires knowledge about the materials, physical skills and creativity. Regardless of it being grandma’s famous apple pie, the hand-pulled noodles from the traditional Chinese restaurant or the industrially manufactured foods, which engage bio-chemical scientists, nutritionists as well as marketing agents. They all aim to create food whose design persuades us to eventually consume it.

We have come so far that food photographers and food stylists are established as fully recognized jobs by now. 💇‍♀️💅📸 In other words, people can be professionally trained in these fields! And in South Korea, the market of the food industry is fairly big. And not to forget, also, the marketing department is a driving force in food fashioning and generating trends.

So in (random?) intervals, new food trends are evolving. Some of these trends are very short-lived, some vanish after a few months, and yet others last for years and may establish themselves as a kind of “style”.

The object of such trends could be an existing food item that has been imported from other cultures. To provide an example, German Schneeballen (shyu-nebalen 슈네발렌) were once in fashion in Korea. Sometime between the years 2013 and 2014, a Korean friend proudly told me about her experience of having eaten this “traditional German dessert”. I had never heard of it before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and finally discovered these “snow ball” like pastries on a Christmas market in Berlin. In Seoul, however, they had practically disappeared by 2015, and I considered myself lucky when I eventually found a cafe which had specialized in Schneeballen in a provincial city in southern Korea!

Koreanized Schneeballen labeled as “funny cookie smashing with hammer” (Manchi gwaja 망치과자), re-discovered inside Myeongdong Station (명동역). Seoul, summer 2019.

More persistent than the Schneeballen trend and also initiated by imported, international foods are such things as coffee, waffles, pork cutlet “Schnitzel” in Japanese style (donkkasseu 돈까스), French croissants and pastries, Chinese-origin Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) etc. All of these did not traditionally belong to Korean cuisine but they have been incorporated into contemporary K-food culture at varying degrees: Often they are not inferior to the original; sometimes they are transformed into a fusion product bearing traits from both cultures (e.g. green tea croissants!); yet other food items are refined and produced in a quality exceeding their foreign precursors (e.g. bienna keopi (비엔나 커피) aka. ainshyupaeneo (아인슈패너) based on Austrian coffee drink “Einspänner“, in fashion since 2018).

In other cases, one single ingredient is the stimulant for a new food trend. A sudden hype is triggered by a certain ingredient, which is then added to various existing food items. A good illustration of this is green tea powder (Jap. matcha), which in the late 2000s, was advertised as being capable of reducing the calorie intake and thus appealed to (mostly female) consumers interested in dieting. Consequently, it appeared in various categories of food, which were accordingly labeled as “well being” (welbing 웰빙). This trend was so successful that today, matcha has ended up as a common flavoring ingredient, mostly in desserts and beverages but also in noodles – similar to cocoa or chocolate-flavored foods in the Western world. Ever since, matcha latte, matcha ice cream and matcha cake are standard items in coffee shops and grocery stores in South Korea.
Other examples for the single-ingredient or one-theme trend are sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박), mugwort (ssuk 쑥), squid ink (coloring breads, pasta and pizzas), Oreo cookies etc. One of the most recent trends, which set off this spring 2019, is based on black sugar (heukdang 흑당): You can see it mostly in bubble tea beverages and bingsu (빙수 – shaved-ice desserts) flavored, upgraded and garnished in the respective theme. Who knows how long this trend will last?

Then, there are new, innovative food items, which originate from one [unknown] creative mind and, as popularity within one region grows, are copied by competitors and distributed further. To illustrate, there used to be such a thing as “Walking Stick Ice Cream” (jipangi ice cream 지팡이아이스크림) – essentially soft serve filled into a wafer shaped like the letter ‘J’. As I recall, it was available around 2014 and 2016. While in areas frequented by international tourists, such as Insadong (인사동) and Myeongdong (명동), there used to be a food stall for jipangi ice cream every 50 meters, it seems to have completely disappeared by now. [Anyone sighting this presumably extinct ‘specie’ or willing to share old photos, please contact the author.]

Angbeoteo (앙버터) at ‘Jean Boulangerie’ (쟝블랑제리) in Seoul, spring 2019.

Another fashionable dessert invention, which I’d like to mention here, is angbeoteo (앙버터): A sandwich containing red bean paste (pat ang-geum 팥앙금) and a thick slice of butter – called “beoteo” (버터) in Korean. Bread and butter – nothing spectacular, you may think. You may also be familiar with the sweet red bean paste filling, which is common in traditional and modern Korean desserts, e.g. rice cakes (tteok 떡), steamed buns (jjim-ppang 찜빵), bean-filled bread rolls (pat-ppang 팥빵). But did you notice the dimensions of the butter that goes into angbeoteo? Rather than a slice of butter, a CHUNK of butter seems to be a more adequate description. And it’s supposed to be eaten as it is! At room temperature. No warming up in the microwave or the oven to melt the butter!!! 🛑 This curious construction has appeared in 2018 and has true fans among Korean ‘bread lovers’ or ‘bread maniacs’, who refer to themselves as “ppang-suni” (빵순이) or “ppang-dori” (빵돌이). [Personally, however, I am not very fond of butter, as you might have noticed…]

With these rapidly changing trends, I oftentimes find myself regretting to not having tried a certain food item, as long as it was available. You never know when a new food item appears or disappears. And similar to other fields of fashion, such as hair styles or jeans trends, there is also the phenomenon of trends recurring after some time. Such is the case for “Mammoth bread” (mammos-ppang 맘모스빵), which – as the name implies – is a big, rustic-looking kind of “bread”. To be more precise, this kind of Korean bread consists of two layers of sheet cake (similar to German Streuselkuchen) which are covered with cream, jam, spreads or other pastes and are then stacked on top of each other to create one MASSIVE sandwich with sweet filling. From what I have heard, mammos-ppang already existed in the 1980s. I am not sure whether it had actually gone extinct in the meantime, but modern bakeries have re-discovered mammos-ppang and breathed new life into it by breeding new variations featuring matcha flavor, chocolate, sweet potato etc. It is indeed a living fossil which enjoys large popularity at the moment.

Next, we can also talk about food trends with regards to seasons – just like in the clothing industry. There are literally seasons for certain food items, which are A) connected to the availability of the main ingredients and B) to the conditions of the natural environment. The first factor is related to the fact that spring greens, edible flowers or fresh strawberries simply do not exist all throughout the year. Once in season, however, suddenly all sorts of foods are flavored with the respective ingredient. Consequently, many coffee shops temporarily offer special desserts and beverages inspired by the short but intense bloom of cherry blossoms. 🌸 Let’s say, you missed out on Korean Starbucks‘ cherry blossom menu this year, then you need to wait until next year. But who knows what concoctions their creative department will cook up in the meantime? Perhaps, you will never get a second chance to try that green tea latte with cherry blossom cream and pink chocolate! While there is some joy in looking forward to new, delectable creations, there is also a sad aspect of such ‘limited editions’ in the food fashion world.
The second factor determining a food season are weather conditions. Many Korean restaurants have an additional summer menu, featuring mostly cold noodle dishes – a welcome refreshment during 40 degrees Celsius plus humidity! ☀️🌡 Who wants to eat noodles in a chilled broth with ice cubes during winter anyways? (Ironically, hot and spicy dishes as well as nourishing stews are available independently from outside temperatures, though.) Seasonal eating is a thing. Just like dressing according to the weather conditions.
Overall, with regards to food seasons, Korean food fashion is comparable to other cultures. Germany, for instance, has likewise developments whenever regional produce such as rhubarb or asparagus are available. Also, [most] ice cream parlors open only during the warmer months. [Totally incomprehensible in the author’s opinion.]

Last, but not least, above mentioned food trends and the impact of food on contemporary Korean culture are also visible in the country’s language. Korean people actually say things like “This [random food item] is in fashion now, isn’t it?!” (요즘은 [앙버터]가 유행이지!) or “That bakery is very popular at the moment!” (저 빵집이 요새 되게 잘 나가는 곳이지!) or “This coffee shop is totally in!” (여기가 핫한 까페야!). In context with the latter statements, you will see people standing in lines outside restaurants and bakeries, which have received attention in the media and turned into a pilgrimage destination for foodies. People are willing to wait for hours just to taste that renowned food item. There are not a few committed foodies, who travel inside the city as well as nationwide just to visit certain locations because of the food. Eventually, their experiences and impressions are published online on various social media channels, in which they proudly show how they have been able to consume a certain item or visit a famous eating location. It is a way of making a [food] fashion statement.

Excerpt of YouTube search, May 2019.

To conclude, this post is a rough sketch of the current phenomenon of food fashion and eating trends in South Korea. The entire topic as well as corresponding customs surrounding food in general exhibit immense dimensions permeating social structures, religion, language, cultural as well as economical developments and more! After all, TV programs, Instagram, YouTube and other media are filled with edible content, which transcends traditional information on recipes or cooking instructions: They feature e.g. eating channels (mukbang / meokbang 먹방), new food reviews, restaurant suggestions and so-called “food porn”, all of which instantly convey a very graphic image of Korea’s obsession with food.

Are you hungry yet? 🍽

Nourish body and soul: Bindaeddeok 빈대떡

The weather is rainy. 🌧
It is simply cold outside.🍃
Or maybe you have a hangover from drinking too much…💥

Whatever be the case – if you have a craving for something warm, greasy, nourishing and hearty, then how about bindaeddeok (빈대떡)? 😉

Stacks of bindaeddeok at Gwangjang Market (광장시장)

This traditional Korean food is a pancake almost entirely made from mung beans, of which the most basic variant is originallyvegan! Basically, skinned mung beans are ground into a smooth batter, which is then fried in oil to create thick, savory pancakes. The batter normally does not need additional flour or eggs for stabilizing, so this dish is not only vegan but also gluten free. Nevertheless, the final pancakes are very filling, contain a mass of protein and are quite the indulgence! 🤤

In general, one can distinguish between two varieties: Plain pancakes vs. pancakes with chunky “fillings”. In the first version, the plain batter is used to make smooth, golden-colored pancakes. The latter contains chunks of additional ingredients, such as pieces of vegetables (e.g. bean sprouts, scallops, carrots) but occasionally also 🐟kimchi, 🦐seafood or 🥩meat. Since seafood and meat fillings normally cost extra, it is rather easy to confirm that your serving is ordered the way you prefer it! Needless to say, the flavor of the final dish changes along with the additional ingredients, and so does the texture shift from smooth and slightly grainy towards chunky and moist!

Similar to other Korean savory pancakes, bindaeddeok are served together with a complimentary sauce. When eating bindaeddeok, pieces of the pancake are dipped into the sauce (typically soy sauce with extra spices) and thus seasoned according to one’s personal preference.

Plain bindaeddeok at North Korean restaurant “Neungra Babsang” (능라밥상)

Besides the taste, there exist slight variations also in terms of name and appearance. For instance, an alternative name for bindaeddeok is nokdu jeon (녹두전 绿豆煎 – literally green bean pancake). In North Korea, on the other hand, these pancakes are called nokdu jijim (녹두지짐).

Also, sizes range from as big as plate-filling to smaller, bite-sized pancakes. The North Korean version, in particular, is prepared with a plain batter, which is occasionally topped with 🌶vegetables or a piece of 🐷pork for garnish.

After all, I warmly recommend clarifying prior to ordering what kind of topping or ‘filling’ will be used! You can easily eliminate meat, fish and seafood by asking something like this: “Hoksi gogi, saengseon ina haemul neo-eu-seoyo? 혹시 고기, 생선이나 해물 넣으세요? Are you putting meat, fish or seafood in this?” If the answer is no (“aniyo! 아니요!”), there should be no shocking surprise when food is served. 😉 However, in case you are allergic or follow strict rules, be aware that your food may nevertheless be cooked on the same grill as food that is not vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher.

Where to find:
There are restaurants which specialize in such pancakes – these are normally identical with pubs serving traditional Korean alcohol (hanguk suljip 한국술집). 🍶🥞 In fact, bindaeddeok is commonly enjoyed in combination with alcohol, especially Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) and pancakes make a classic couple in Korean food culture.

Besides that, bindaeddeok are also sold outdoors at food stalls (preferably near subway stations or busy streets) or on traditional markets. At such locations, you can either eat one on the spot like typical Korean street food, or you can buy it for take-away. 🥡 In my opinion, however, they taste best, when they are still hot and crispy outside, while the inside is soft and juicy! 🤤

Overall, these pancakes are a rich and indulgent food item that is (at least in Korean minds) emotionally linked with social gatherings. In addition to that, they provide fuel to help you regain your strength, when you feel weak physically. Hence, I list bindaeddeok as one of my personal comfort foods in Korean cuisine. 💚🍴

What is your favorite comfort food? ☕️🌧 Anything other than chocolate?! 🍫
Or do you have a specific craving, when you have a hangover? 🤪

Alcohol and food

Black beer served with cinnamon on the rim alongside cheese pizza inside a Western-style pub.

In Korea, drinking plays an important social role.🍻 When meeting people in the evening, people often enjoy their food alongside alcoholic drinks. Koreans are respectful if you do not drink alcohol – but it will definitely influence the scope of your social activities. (Actually, people will initially expect you to not be fond of drinking at all, since you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.)

In terms with this, anju (안주) are a characteristic trait of Korean culture. This is a category of foods which are specifically made to accompany alcohol. They range from simple peanuts and fried potatoes to more complex dishes such as savory pancakes, raw fish or all kinds of meat barbecues.

There are also classical combinations of specific types of drinks with certain dishes. For example:

  • you will find 🍴Western-style foods such as 🍗fried chicken, 🍟french fries, 🍕pizza or sausages on the menu of bars that serve 🍺beer (maekju 맥주).
  • Grilled 🥩meat or 🐟fish are often paired with Korean 🍶soju (소주).
  • 🥢Traditional food served with 🥛Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) are savory pancakes, of which many variations (vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, you name it!) exist. Especially on a rainy day, Koreans express a craving for these pancakes.

What can you eat when going out? Be aware that not every bar or Korean pub (suljip 술집) offers a dish that is vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher. There are a number of options, however, depending on the kind of location you go to. Here are some ideas:

Cheese platter in a Western-style pub
  • 🍺 Western style pubs aka Hof (호프): 🥜peanuts (땅콩), 🥨salted pretzels, 🍿Korean popcorn or other puffed grains (ppeongtwigi 뻥튀기), 🍟fried potatoes (gamja twigim 감자튀김), 🥗salad (샐러드), 🍕pizza (피자), 🧀cheese (치즈)
  • 🍶 Barbecues for beef or pork: 🥚egg stew (gyeran jjim 계란찜), 🍳rolled omelette (gyeran mari 계란말이; sometimes with 🥓ham or sausage), 🍜 mixed buckwheat noodles (bibim naengmyeon 비빔냉면; often served with 🥚egg and 🐄beef broth; noodles may contain 🐚 sea shell powder)
  • 🥛 Korean pubs with traditional food: 🥔potato pancake (gamja jeon 감자전), acorn jelly salad (dotori muk muchim 도토리묵 무침), leek 🥞pancake (pa jeon 파전), garlic chive 🥞pancake (buchu jeon 부추전), mung bean 🥞pancake (bindaeddeok 빈대떡 / nokdujeon 녹두전 绿豆煎), tofu with kimchi (dubu kimchi 두부김치 – kimchi normally contains 🐟fish sauce)
Outdoor food stall with various savory pancakes (buchimgae 부침개 / jeon 전).

Be aware that recipes vary by family and each place will have their own version of the respective dish. You might want to confirm prior to ordering, whether any 🥩meat, 🐟fish or 🐚seafood goes into your serving.

Additionally, especially in the case of eating from an outdoor food stall, dishes may be prepared on the same grill. Just thought I’d mention this in case of allergies or personal preferences. After all, it is up to you to decide whether you eat under these conditions or not. Anyways, hope you enjoy your night out! Cheers! 🍾😊

Vegetarian option no. 1: Bibimbap 비빔밥

The dish that is perhaps the most easily found option for vegans, vegetarians or people following a halal or kosher diet is….

🍚🍄🥕🍳🥒🍆
Bibimbap 비빔밥 – literally “mixed rice”


Hot Stone Bowl Bibimbap (Dolsot Bibimbap 돌솥비빔밥) with mushrooms, rice on the side, soy sauce and side dishes.

Bap” 밥 meaning rice is one of the staple foods of Korean cuisine, so many dishes contain rice and also carry the word “bap” in their name. 
Beside 🍚rice, the dish consists of a number of varying toppings (mostly seasoned 🥕vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🍳egg) plus a sauce. There are innumerable versions of Bibimbap! I will soon introduce common versions with classical combinations of vegetables as well as post innovative creations from modern restaurants here.

Bibimbap with fresh vegetables (saengyachae Bibimbab 생야채비빔밥) including avocado.

Normally, the cheaper versions do not contain meat or fish produce at all. Otherwise, you can ask the waiter or cook to omit the respective topping when preparing your serving. You can do so by saying something like this:
🥩 “Gogi bbae juseyo.” “고기 빼 주세요” – Without meat please. 🍖
🐟 “Saengseon ina haemul bbae juseyo.” “생선이나 해물 빼 주세요” – Without fish or seafood please. 🦐
🥚 “Gyeran bbae juseyo.” 계란 빼 주세요” – Without the egg please. 🍳

Two types of Bibimbap served with complimentary side dishes and soup.
Sauce is added to personal preference.

Another key ingredient of Bibimbap is the sauce. The classical sauce is Korean fermented Chili sauce (gochujang 고추장), which in some cases has been upgraded with pieces of beef (this is mostly the case in more expensive restaurants). At other times, you have a selection of different sauces to choose from. Beside chili sauce, I’ve encountered versions of Bibimbap which have been served alongside seasoned soy sauce (양념 간장), a mustard sauce (겨자소스) or even a sauce made from sesame seeds.

How to eat:
In the large serving bowl, evenly mix the rice, toppings and sauce, which you add according to your personal taste. Ideally, chopsticks are used to stir everything, so that the rice grains are not mushed into a paste – but this takes more effort than simply using a spoon! 😆 The mixed rice is then eaten with a spoon.

Where to find:
Simple versions of Bibimbap can be found in even the smallest, most basic restaurants of Korea, the so-called bunsikjeom 분식점. There are restaurants, which specialize in Bibimbap and thus offer a range of different versions. In general, there exists at least one Bibimbap option in most restaurants serving Korean food.