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. 👚💖

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Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… 🤓

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (찰토마토), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (카페 엘딘) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (토마토주스) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everything… In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (천은사) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” 🤓 Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. 💚🍅❤️

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the movie Shall We Dance (1937).

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! 😊