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Korea’s Love Affair with Sweet Potatoes

If you were to name the ultimate comfort food, I bet sweet potatoes are not on your list. For many Koreans, however, the sweet tuber is a favorite. From pre-packaged snacks, stews, desserts or just by itself, the sweet potato is extremely popular in Korean cuisine. One of my fondest memories of living in Korea is standing by a street vendor’s hot barrel-cart during winter, eagerly waiting for a steaming hot sweet potato wrapped in the prior day’s newspaper. It was the epitome of winter comfort eating!

There’s a myriad of pre-packed and prepared foods that use sweet potatoes as a primary ingredient. From lattes, yogurt drinks, cakes, noodles and pizzas, sweet potatoes are represented. The versatile root vegetable is healthy, easy to grow and tastes great; which is why it’s so popular in Korea.

Korean Sweet Potato Varieties

When I say sweet potatoes, I am not referring to the orange variety (typically Beauregard) you can find in most grocery markets. There are many varieties of sweet potatoes consumed in Korea. Goguma (고구마) means sweet potato in Korean. The most popular is bam goguma (밤고구마) and mul goguma (물고구마); they are essentially the same species of potato, but the texture and taste will vary based on growing conditions. They have purple-brown skins and a creamy, yellowish flesh.

Korea’s Love Affair with Sweet Potatoes

by Debbie Wolfe, CKC Writer

Bam goguma, or chestnut sweet potatoes, have a dry texture and yellow flesh when cooked. When roasted, they taste similar to chestnuts, hence its name.

Mul goguma, or water sweet potatoes, are thinner and longer in shape. They have a higher moisture content, which is why they are called “water” sweet potatoes. The flesh is darker yellow color when cooked. Bam goguma is better for for steaming and mul goguma for baking/roasting.

Hobak goguma (호박고구마), or pumpkin sweet potato, is light brown on the outside and orange on the inside when uncooked. Its flesh will turn dark yellow when cooked and tastes very sweet with a creamy soft texture.

For the most part, these varieties of Korean sweet potatoes are much sweeter than the North American staple sweet potato, Beauregard. The sweetness makes them perfect on their own, and for desserts and savory dishes in Korean cuisine.

How Koreans Eat Sweet Potatoes

The most convenient and popular way that Koreans consume sweet potatoes is just roasted or steamed. During the fall and winter, when sweet potatoes are in season, specialized sweet potato barrel roasters are common on street corners. The potatoes are wrapped in newsprint and eaten on the go.

Hwang-geum goguma (황금고구마), or Gold potato, is a cross between hobak and bam goguma. The result is a beautiful golden flesh that captures the taste of both its parents, but in one package.

At home, sweet potatoes are sliced and steamed and then eaten as a snack or side dish with kimchi. They are sliced in rounds, fried in a light batter and served with a dipping sauce.

Sweet potato fries are another popular street food in Korea. Served in easy to carry cups, the fries make a quick and delicious snack. The fries are great for anju (side dish for alcoholic beverages).

Sweet potatoes are also a trendy diet food. During the sweet potato diet, you can eat sweet potatoes every day for each meal. An average medium sweet potato has 112 calories, no fat, 2 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and more than 100 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A. In theory, the tuber helps keep you fuller and satisfied longer, thus resisting the urge to eat between meals. Does it work? Perhaps. Many Kpop idols swear by it and they look great!

Jasaek goguma (적색 고구마), or purple potato, offers a favorably dryer, denser, and richer taste with well-balanced sweetness and a bold purple flesh.

Nutrition

All sweet potatoes are highly nutritious; in fact, it’s one of the healthiest vegetables in the world.They are easy to grow, and combining that with their nutritional punch, it’s no surprise that sweet potatoes are popular all around the world. What makes sweet potatoes an especially beneficial plant is the fact that the entire plant is edible: leaves, stems and roots.

Fresh, stir-fried sweet potato stems are a popular banchan (side dish) in Korea. In their dehydrated form, the stems are used to make namul. The stems and leaves of the sweet potato are rich in vitamin B, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, zinc and protein. Studies have shown that sweet potato leaves contain as many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as spinach. Combine that with their nutrient-packed roots and you have a superfood that is versatile and delicious to eat!

Korean Sweet Potato Recipes

There are an abundance of Korean dishes made with sweet potatoes. From noodles to desserts, sweet potatoes are present. Here are a few you can find on Crazy Korean Cooking:

Goguma Mattang, candied sweet potatoes.

Goguma Julgi Bokkeum, stir fried sweet potato stems.

Japchae, stir fried sweet potato noodles.

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