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. 👚💖

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.]

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 a similar consistency.

After all, if we continue seeing 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 them all. Definitely worth mentioning are potato pancakes as well as potato tteok, which are classic Korean dishes. Both are mainly made from potatoes and entirely vegan.🥔🌱

After all, potatoes are very versatile and they are used in innumerable ways all over the world. In Korea, you can discover a couple of new cooking methods for 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).