Meeting Potatoes in Korea

You may find boiled potatoes boring as a side dish🥔, but you love french fries🍟. And a bag of chips miraculously disappears when you watch a movie. 📺

Thinking you know potatoes? 🥔

You’ve probably had potatoes in all kinds of ways:
Boiled, mashed, baked, roasted, fried, cooked ‘au gratin’…

You also know there are various kinds of potatoes: Potatoes with white or yellow flesh, covered with brown or pink skin. There exist even blue potatoes! Sweet potatoes, yams and regular potatoes are not the same thing either.*) 🥔=/=🍠

Congratulations, you know a lot about potatoes. 👍

But have you ever had potatoes the KOREAN WAY? 🇰🇷

You shall experience potatoes from a totally different perspective in Korea.

Firstly, potatoes are not considered a staple food as in Western cultures. Here, the staple food is rice. Period. 🍚 Potatoes, on the other hand, are rather enjoyed as a snack in between meals. How? On their own. Plain. What? Just potatoes. Steamed. [Did you ever think of steaming potatoes before?] Right, steaming is an option of preparing food, remembering that now. Koreans also boil potatoes in water just like Westerners do. Still something seems odd. Without any seasoning? Well, yes. Sugar. WHAT?

This is how I encountered potatoes in Korea for the first time: Grandmother brought us a tray with steaming hot potatoes, next to it was a bowl of white sugar. We were supposed to peel the potatoes with our hands and then dip them into the sugar. This was in the 1990s. In other families, the potatoes may be entirely coated with sugar before serving. While this seems like an old-fashioned way of preparing potatoes, this snack is still available at some street stalls. Plain potatoes to go. 🥡 Yay!
Alternatively, another popular snack, which is sold as street food are small potatoes, that have been peeled and fried in vegetable oil until partially golden brown. These little spherical potatoes (normally referred to as algamja (알감자) or tong-gamja (통감자)) are served with sugar or salt and eaten with toothpicks or wooden skewers.

Various snacks sold on the street: Fried potatoes served with brown sugar, cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, boiled eggs, peanuts, bell pepper, Korean melon etc.

Furthermore, potatoes are treated somewhat like vegetables. One vegan side dish (common in restaurants and at home) is made from thin slices of potatoes fried together with julienned carrots and onions in vegetable oil (gamja bokkeum 감자볶음). Another veggie-friendly side dish consists of potatoes, which have been cooked in a soy sauce-based brine (gamja jorim 감자조림). Once, I’ve even seen potatoes served raw in a noble Korean restaurant – very finely sliced and bedded on a sweet-and-sour sauce. So basically, when potatoes are served as a side, you have starch to accompany your bowl of rice, which is served as the staple. 🍚➕🥔 Hooray!

Following this scheme are also developments regarding modern foods in Korea, i.e. foods with recent Western origins. Let’s talk pizza and say “pija” (피자) for Korean pizza. Forget Italian pizza. Think American pizza plus K-pop. In Korea, they put french fries on pizza. 🍕➕🍟 Potatoes are in fact a common topping on Korean pizza – especially when you order the vegetarian option. Order your veggie-friendly gamja pija (감자피자) for double indulgence. And to properly top things off, go to one of the Korean pizza places, where you can add sweet potato cream as a topping around the crust. 🍕➕🍟➕🍠 Don’t feel like pizza? Then there’s also the option to get a veggie-friendly burger at Lotteria (Korean version of McDonalds or Burger King), which is filled with – guess what – a hash brown! Who needs a burger patty alternative, if you have potatoes?! Oh and don’t forget to order french fries as the side! 🍔➕🥔➕🍟

If this is too much greasy decadence for your taste, how about a salad? 🥗 Contemporary Korea also offers potato salad – called gamja saeleodeu (감자샐러드). How to make Korean potato salad: Take a regular potato salad with mayonnaise dressing, mash everything with a fork until it’s an even paste with tiny pieces of vegetables (and occasionally ham), and then shape the mass into pretty balls using an ice cream scoop. To be frank, I have not thoroughly studied recipes on how to make Korean potato salad. But that’s what it looks like. Whatsoever, I have done research on how it is consumed. (In other words, I have more experience eating it!) How to eat Korean potato salad: 1) Enjoy it as a side dish next to your bowl of rice, while eating with chopsticks. 🍚➕🥔➕🥢 2) Place one scoop of potato salad in between two slices of toast and make a sandwich. 🥪➕🥔. Apart from that, you can find it at the salad bar of buffets, ready for you to assemble your own healthy, vitamin-packed, light salad creation. There may be more ways of serving Korean potato salad, but those are the ones that stuck in my mind the most. By the way, you can find this salad also ready-made in super markets and convenience stores, normally next to sweet potato salad and pumpkin salad, which have similar consistency.

After all, if we continue considering potatoes as vegetables, above equations appear to make sense. Right? At least a little bit…?

“Milk Blended with Potato” at Starbucks in 2019.

As recipes are continuously diversifying, let me tell you about the most recent food trend happening at Starbucks. The current summer 2019 menu includes “Milk Blended with Potato”, which is essentially a milkshake topped with flakes of potato chips and drizzles of cheese sauce. After pizza, fries, sandwiches and salads, it was indeed time for dessert! 🥛➕🍦➕🥔 This concoction tastes very sweet in the milky base but salty, greasy and cheesy on top. 🧀Good luck on getting your brains to accept this combination! (I failed and couldn’t finish it. 😖)

Vegan potato tteok (gamja tteok 감자떡) made from potato starch and filled with sweet bean paste.

Apart from these “curious” ways of consuming potatoes,**) there are many other dishes featuring potatoes in Korea. They are used as ingredients in various foods, ranging from stews to soups, noodles, dumplings and dessert – too numerous to list all. Definitely worth mentioning are potato pancakes as well as potato tteok, which are classical Korean dishes. Both are mainly made from potatoes and entirely vegan.🥔🌱

After all, potatoes are very versatile and they are used in multi-fold ways all over the world. In Korea, you can discover new cooking methods of potatoes. It seems like you are meeting a totally new food!
🥔🤝😊
Hello, Mr. Potato! Nice to make your acquaintance!
“감자씨, 안녕하세요? 처음 뵙겠습니다. 만나서 반갑습니다!”

Fresh potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots in a supermarket in Seoul, June 2019. Note the proportions.

Additional notes from the author:

*) In Korea, there is already a strong distinction between potatoes (gamja 감자) and sweet potatoes (goguma 고구마), as demonstrated in their respective names.

**) Termed “curious” from the perspective of the author, who has grown up in Germany, a country famous for its consumption of potatoes. Thus, based on personal background and experiences, the depicted customs regarding potatoes in Korea seem unconventional and novel in the eyes of the author. There is, however, absolutely no intention to judge what the ‘proper way’ of enjoying potatoes is (doubtful whether such a rule existed anyways).

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Seasonal treat: Spring greens


🐦Birds are singing.🕊
🌸Flowers are blooming.🌼
🦋Insects are buzzing around.🐝
🌱New leaves are sprouting on plants.🌿

It’s basically screaming in your face:
🌤 SPRING IS HERE!!!! 🌷

How else can you tell?
🤤Fresh spring greens (bom namul 봄나물) are back!!💚

Dishes made from tofu and spring greens (pictured: dol namul, dureup, bangpung namul, dallae)

Traditional Korean food is characterized by turning seasonal and local ingredients into diverse healthy and flavorful dishes. In particular, the abundance of side dishes consisting mainly of 🥦vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🌿wild herbs is a wonderful aspect for vegans, vegetarians and vegetable-lovers! 🤤💚🥕 And now, as spring greens are in season, these are used to upgrade dishes with the special flavor of spring.🌱 Accordingly, you will notice how additional fresh greens are currently offered in grocery stores, on traditional markets, and in restaurants.

There exists quite a diversity of edible greens native to the Korean peninsula. Among the common ones, you will find:

  • ssuk (쑥) – the young leaves of Korean mugwort (Artemisia princeps) are harvested before the plant develops tough and stringy leaves. Its aroma is so popular that it is frequently added to rice cakes, bakery and beverages (e.g. tea or ssuk latte 쑥라떼) all year round
  • chwi namul (취나물) – various species from the family Asteraceae, e.g. 참취 (Aster scaber), 곰취 (Ligularia fischeri), 미역취 (Solidago japonica)
  • cham namul (참나물) – Pimpinella brachycarpa
    bangpung namul (방풍나물) – edible leaves of a plant which belongs to the same botanical family as carrot, parsnip and parsley
  • sebal namul (세발나물) – the fine thread-like leaves of this plant are edible raw as well as briefly blanched.
  • dol namul (돌나물 石上菜) – Sedum samentosum
  • dureup (두릅) – newly sprouted leaves of the tree Aralia elata, which are edible after cooking and thus softening the shoot’s stings.
  • dallae (달래) – Allium monanthum is a kind of small spring onion
  • sseumbagwi (씀바귀) – roots from a plant scientifically called Ixeridium dentatum. As the name implies, these roots are quite bitter and are reminiscent of dandelion.

Prices for these greens vary by type, but they are generally quite affordable – often decisively cheaper than common vegetables from Western cuisines such as spinach, lettuce or cabbage! Normally you can buy a package (supermarket) or a ‘shovel full of greens’ (traditional market) for something between 1000 KRW and 3000 KRW.

Side dishes made from sebal namul, sseumbagwi and dol namul

If you wonder how these are eaten, recipes for spring greens are innumerable! In general, most of them can be turned into simple vegetable side dishes by blanching them in lightly salted water and then seasoning them according to personal liking. In addition to that, some can be eaten raw in combination with a flavorful dressing – sebal namul and dol namul for instance. Other ideas are to add them to stews, make savory pancakes or use them as a topping in a bowl of mixed rice (Bibimbab 비빔밥).

During the rest of the year, you may encounter some of these greens in dried form as well. However, the texture, flavor and aroma differ decisively from the taste of the fresh plant. So don’t miss out on this opportunity and enjoy this spring treat as long as fresh greens are available over the next few weeks!

Happy experimenting and exploring the various flavors of these local vegetables! 😊

Ambassador of K-food: Kimchi 김치

Outside Korea, kimchi is perhaps the best known dish of Korean food and it is gaining popularity in the Western world surfing the wave of #healthfood.

Various types of kimchi sold in a grocery store.

But did you know that in Korea, kimchi is most of the times not vegan or vegetarian?
Among the many ingredients of kimchi, there is usually something called jeot (젓) / jeotgal (젓갈) – fermented 🐟fish sauce or fermented tiny 🦐shrimp, occasionally other kinds of 🦀seafood. Unless you carefully examine kimchi and manage to identify tiny black dots as the eyes of tiny shrimp, this key ingredient remains hidden most of the time. 👀

Beside the distinct savory flavor (#umami #감칠맛), which many Koreans appreciate in their food, jeotgal adds proteins and minerals to the vegetable dish. While its nutritional value certainly contributes to kimchi being labelled as a super food nowadays, this is certainly not the only reason why kimchi is traditionally served with every meal and appreciated for its positive effect on the health of your digestive system.

There are countless varieties of kimchi, differing not only by the vegetable starring as the main feature of this side dish, e.g. cabbage, cucumber and radish. Basically, kimchi can be produced from all kinds of vegetables by salting, then seasoning and lastly fermenting them. Overall, there are numerous methods, types of kimchi as well as ingredients constituting the sauce. On top of that, each family possesses their own recipe for making kimchi. The diversity of kimchi is accordingly sheer endless.

As a rule of thumb:
Regular kimchi contains jeotgal.
There are only a few classic varieties which it is normally not added to: those of the ‘water kimchi’ type (mul kimchi 물김치), in which the vegetables are literally swimming in the pickling brine, as well as the white version of napa cabbage kimchi (baek kimchi 백김치). However, most frequently served as complimentary side dishes are the napa cabbage kimchi (baechu kimchi 배추김치) or kimchi made from cubes of radish (ggakdugi 깍두기). Occasionally, also these are made without jeotgal, or they may contain it in such small amounts, that a sensitive nose can hardly discern its fishy traces.

Two kinds of fish sauce sold in plastic bottles in a supermarket.

Whenever I asked restaurant staff to confirm whether they put jeotgal into their kimchi, the answer was either yes or they didn’t know. I always wondered whether that’s because they are afraid of giving away their secret recipe or because really nobody except for the old lady working in the kitchen who has produced kimchi for the entire family all her life really knows! 🙃

Anyways. If you want to be 100% sure about what you’re eating, bear in mind that kimchi is most likely not vegan.