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).

Sweet or snack: Tteok 떡

They are nutritious and originally vegan:
Korean rice cakes (tteok / ddeok 떡)

Traditionally, they were consumed as sweet treats on holidays or special occasions. But nowadays, they are quite abundant in Korea – throughout the year and basically anywhere – in innumerable variations! Although the basic ingredient is normally rice, they come in all kinds of shapes and colors, with fillings, toppings, varying textures, steamed, pounded, fermented etc…

Rice cakes of the “songpyeon” (송편) variety, filled with sesame and sugar.

Korean food is often colorful and so are these rice cakes! 🌈 Ideally, they are dyed naturally by adding flavorful ingredients, such as

❤️red = red rice (honggukmi 홍국미)
🧡yell0w = sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박)
💚green with speckles = mugwort (ssuk 쑥)
💜 light purple = purple sweet potato (jeok goguma 적고구마)
💜purple with speckles = black rice (heungmi 흑미)
💕pink = cactus fruit (baeknyeoncho 백년초)

Fresh yeongyang ddeok (영양떡) left to cool down before being cut and wrapped individually.

There exist rice cakes in cuisines of various Asian countries – each exhibiting local characteristics. Regarding Korea, here is a rough overview listing the most common criteria to demonstrate the diversity of tteok / ddeok:

  • Type of main starch: short grain rice (mepssal 멥쌀), glutinous short grain rice (chapssal 찹쌀)
  • Additions to dough: mugwort (ssuk 쑥), red / black whole grain rice (honggukmi 홍국미 / heungmi 흑미), pumpkin, sweet potato
  • Filling: sugar with sesame seeds, red bean paste (pat anggeum 팥앙금), bean paste (kong anggeum 콩앙금); occasionally nuts or dried fruit are added
  • Topping: sesame seeds, nuts, gingko seeds, dried fruit, chestnuts, whole beans
  • Coating: roasted soy bean powder (kong garu 콩가루), mashed beans (kong gomul 콩고물), [honeyed] syrup with sesame seeds, jujube (daechu 대추), coconut or spongecake crumbs (kastera 카스테라)
  • Shape: hand-shaped, ball-shaped, cut into blocks, pressed into molds
  • Method of preparation: pounding steamed rice (➡️dense, chewy texture), sifting rice powder and then steaming it (➡️fluffy, powdery texture), fermenting rice batter and then steaming it (➡️slightly tart flavor, bubbles in dough)
Mugwort tteok filled with red bean paste and covered in roasted soy bean powder
콩고물쑥떡

In general, rice cakes will not taste as sweet as our contemporary Western desserts. Modern versions and especially the ones with (red) bean filling, however, can turn them into rather filling, rich and nutritious sugar bombs. 😋 If the filling or topping of the rice cake contains nuts beside beans, this adds further sources of energy! Curiously enough, there exists a modern kind of tteok that is coated in crumbs of sponge cake – this is an exception to the otherwise vegan food item. Also, there are varieties, which are not sweetened at all. You will find these plain rice cakes in Korean dishes such as tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or in the soup tteokguk (떡국). But more on this later, in a future post.

Where to find:
Normally, rice cakes can be found as a to-go snack packaged into plastic foil basically everywhere – in convenience stores, supermarkets, on traditional markets, on the street, in the subway and of course at “rice cake houses” (tteok jip 떡집/ tteok bang 떡방), where they are produced on location. What’s better than enjoying fresh rice cakes, as long as they are still warm, soft and chewy? 😋

In Seoul, prices for the dessert/snack types of tteok lie between 2000 and 3000 KRW per package, but this varies by regional location, brand and quality of ingredients.

Plain white ddeok which has been roasted and garnished with honey, bean powder and almonds.

Other than this, you may find rice cakes served for dessert in traditional Korean restaurants (the fancier type of restaurant!), in traditional tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통 찻집) or at tteok cafes, which are nowadays increasing in Seoul. At such locations, rice cakes are occasionally served roasted and garnished with a drizzle of honey, condensed milk or a kind of syrup along with other toppings. You may also see them as the topping in other desserts such as bingsu (빙수), which is a shaved ice dessert.

Apart from this, please note that rice cakes taste best the day they are produced! In case you happen to buy fresh rice cakes in bulk (which is often cheaper, especially at traditional markets), be aware of the following facts:

  • If you leave them at room temperature, they might spoil until the next day.
  • If you put them into the fridge, they will harden and require heat to soften again.
  • If you decide to store them, it’s best to freeze them. Let them thaw slowly at room temperature, when you want to eat them. Just decide when you want to eat them and take them out of the freezer a few hours in advance.
  • If you want to soften hardened rice cakes quickly, you could do so using a microwave (❗️softens unevenly, so tteok needs to be turned frequently) or roasting them on a dry pan (❗️burns and melts suddenly!). Steaming them is another option. [Otherwise, I recommend letting them thaw naturally.]

Let’s start exploring…

Food painting #001. Material: Tofu, chili paste, brown rice, kimchi, Chinese yam, seaweed, sesame seeds.

FOOD.
Food is big in Korea.
Food looks beautiful in Korea.
Foodies will love eating in Korea.

But it can be difficult to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet in Korea.

After years of living in Korea, I’ve decided to share some of my experience, hoping it will provide an orientation for people in a similar situation. The world of food is complex, it is exciting, full of new impressions, scents, visuals, textures and flavors. However, it can be confusing and frustrating, if you cannot read the labels or do not speak enough Korean to communicate your dietary preferences.

Although South Korean society seems to be changing rapidly in various areas, people with certain dietary lifestyles (such as veganism, vegetarianism, raw food, pescetarianism, halal, kosher etc.) are still rare.

Thus, let me offer you some ideas. With the upcoming posts, I aim to introduce you to the basics of Korean food, make practical suggestions for a satisfying food hunt and introduce you to veggie-friendly locations for dining out.

My posts will be launched on Instagram first, where they are primarily pictures! (Because… who doesn’t like #foodporn? 😆) However, you will find longer descriptions and more details about the respective topic in this blog.

Helpful words

  • chaesik ju-eui-ja 채식주의자 – vegetarian 🥕
  • wanjeon chaesik ju-eui-ja / bigeon 완전채식주위가 / 비건 – vegan 🥕🥦
  • gogi 고기 – meat🥩
  • saengseon 생선 生鮮 – fish🐟
  • haesanmul 해산물 海産物 – seafood🦐
  • yujepum 유제품 – dairy🥛🧀
  • gyeran 계란 – egg🥚🍳
  • ggul 꿀 – honey🐝🍯

Simple phrases

  • Chaesik ju-eui-ja yeyo. 채식주의자예요. I am a vegetarian. 🥕
  • Chaesik haeyo. 채식해요. I eat vegetarian food. 🥕
  • Jeoneun gogi, saengseon ina haesanmul mot meogeoyo. 저는 고기, 생선이나 해산물 못먹어요. I cannot eat meat, fish or seafood. 🚫🥩🐟🦐
  • Jeoneun yujepum, gyeran ina ggul mot meogeoyo. 저는 유제품, 계란이나 꿀 못먹어요. I cannot eat dairy, egg or honey. 🚫🥛🧀🥚🍳🐝🍯

and… very important for Korean food culture:

  • Jal meok-gessimnida! 잘 먹겠습니다. I will eat well. (said BEFORE the beginning of the meal. Similar to the French “Bon appetit” or German “Guten Appetit”.)
  • Jal meo-geossimnida! 잘 먹었습니다. I have eaten well. (said AFTER the meal.)

And after all, I’d like to end this post with the following statement:

Please, enjoy your food! 😊❤
Masikke deuseyo~ 맛있게 드세요 ~