We Koreans love the sweet potato. You can tell, because it is in everything. And by everything, I really mean everything. Although eaten all year round, it is particularly in winter when we think of the sweet potato the most. In addition to hot soups and stews, it’s another comfort food which is essential in a Korean winter.
As patbingsu (팥빙수) is in the summer, such is the roasted sweet potato in the winter. Roasted sweet potatoes (군고구마) are the staple winter food. Large barrels are made into streetcart ovens with customized trays in which the sweet potatoes roast in their jackets. We see them less and less these days but the Korean winter scene seems rather incomplete without the sight of a warmly dressed ajeossi next to a hot barrel, handing out steaming sweet potatoes in a large envelope made from recycled paper to eager customers.
The sight is so ubiquitous that it even shows up in online games:
You can also roast sweet potatoes at home in the oven, and if you don’t have an oven (like most Korean households), you can also steam them. Sometimes more than a snack, sweet potatoes can be eaten with kimchi – the spicy and savory tartness creates a nice balance with the potato’s sweetness – no matter what kind of kimchi it is.
Barbecue is one of the first things that first come to mind when you think of Korean cuisine. Besides meat, many vegetables are grilled as accompaniments, and most are grilled in their natural state without any additional sauces or marinades. Among the most popular are onions, mushrooms, and of course, sweet potatoes.
Besides grilling, sweet potatoes are popular for frying. Sweet potatoes are usually sliced in rounds and fried with a very light covering of batter or without. Fried food street stalls will usually have sweet potatoes on their menu, and upscale versions would be sold at restaurants.
There is another kind of fried sweet potato: the fries. These too are usually sold on street carts. Sliced in much thinner strips than regular fries, they are less mealy and much crunchier than their potato counterparts. Great on their own, they also make excellent anju (안주, side dish for alcoholic beverages), especially for beer.
Another great snack is mattang (맛탕). Basically it’s candied or caramelized sweet potato and can be easily made at home. It’s a great way to use your leftover steamed or fried sweet potatoes if you had made too many, and a popular kids’ snack. All you have to do is toss in slices of sweet potatoes and into a frying pan of melting sugar and cook until the sugar coating browns evenly. For the lazy, there are street stalls and diners which serve mattang, although it really is best when made at home and piping hot.
With such popularity as a snack, it is only natural that sweet potato flavored products would be on the market. Commercially made pre-packaged snacks usually come in the form of chips. There was once sweet potato flavored ice cream sandwiches, but they have been discontinued recently and replaced with other flavors. (I suspect the association with winter limited sales in summer, but this is pure speculation on my part. You might hear people mention homemade sweet potato ice cream, but it usually is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a topping of mashed sweet potatoes.)
Even though, there’s something else to soothe your sweet tooth: cake. Sweet potato cake has been popular for quite a long while here in Korea – it first showed up in bakeries in the early ‘90s if I remember correctly – and it has become as basic as cheesecake. Most of the bakery franchises have their own version, many decorated with sweet potato chips to add flavor and crunch.
If cake is too sweet for you, you can also opt for pastries. They make for a quick breakfast with a hot cup of coffee or tea, of something to fill your stomach when you’ve got the munchies. The variety of pastries and combination of fillings are many.
Another thing with sweet potato which many non-Koreans seem to find quite baffling: pizza. (I have yet to meet a non-Korean who thought it was perfectly normal.) We’re not talking about sweet potato slices here. Although used as a topping, the sweet potato is usually in the form of a mousse. It is either stuffed in the crust or carefully placed as a circle on top of the pizza, creating a “ring of gold”. All Korean pizza franchises will have a pizza selection with “gold” added to it – it does not mean the pizza is a larger version or has more ingredients, it simply means the pizza comes with sweet potato mousse. If you don’t like that taste of texture of it, avoid pizzas with “gold” in their name. (A lot of Korean pizzas also come with sweet corn but that is another post in its own.)
Nothing is wasted from the sweet potato. The vines (or stems) are also consumed as banchan (반찬, side dish). Both fresh and dried vines are used, the former being light green in color whereas the latter a dark tan brown. The vines are usually peeled and blanched, mixed with various sauces and condiments.
Last but not least, we have to mention a quintessential Korean dish: japchae (잡채). Sweet potatoes in japchae? Well, yes, in a way. A staple on holidays and a standard of “mom’s cooking”, the dish is an assortment of stir-fried vegetables and beef mixed with glass noodles made from the starch of sweet potatoes.
The starch of the sweet potato is also used to make jelly (muk, 묵), much like acorn jelly but with a lighter taste and color.
There you go: some of the tasty reasons why we Koreans love the sweet potato so much. What dishes have you tried? What are your favorites? What sweet potato dishes are there in your countries? We’d love to know.