by Heaven Chu
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that put a heavy emphasis on whole foods and home cooked meals. They used food as a medium to keep me connected to my Korean culture. We went to Korean markets, farms, and stores where I was immersed into a whole new world of produce. From fern brake to bellflower root, I was introduced to many plants I had never seen in American grocery stores.
Growing up as a Korean-American, I was exposed to both Western and Eastern influences in cooking. However, the foreign nature of East Asian foods made me more intrigued about the ingredients used. Whenever we went to Korean markets, I tried to familiarize myself with the different types of produce and link them to common dishes I would eat at home. For example, daikon (Raphanus sativus) is a specific type of radish that is cut into cubes, seasoned with spices, and fermented. The result is a spicy and tangy side dish called kkadugi, or Korean radish kimchi.
The one plant that I never leave the market without is the Japanese, or Murasaki, sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). There are thousands of varieties of the sweet potato. They come in a wide range of skin and flesh colors, including white, orange, yellow, and purple. Unlike the name suggests, the sweet potato is not related to the potato at all. The sweet potato is in the Morning Glory family and the potato itself is a modified root used by the plant for storing nutrients. Water spinach, a popular vegetable in Chinese cuisine, is also part of this family. A white potato (Solanum tuberosum) is in the Nightshade family and is a modified stem. Other common plants in the Nightshade family include tomatoes and bell peppers.
You may be wondering, what is so special about a Japanese sweet potato? Aren’t all sweet potatoes basically the same thing? No! In fact, I never liked the standard orange fleshed sweet potato that most people are familiar with—they were too sweet and mushy for my liking. I actively avoided them during Thanksgiving, more so if they were topped with brown sugar and marshmallows.
The Japanese sweet potato has a firmer, starchy texture with a subtle sweetness. The skin has a reddish-purple hue and golden colored flesh. The Korean (and my favorite) way to prepare Japanese sweet potatoes is to wrap them in foil and roast them on a fire. The sweet and slightly charred aroma and nutty taste is a perfect winter snack. The true beauty of the Japanese sweet potato lies in its versatility in Korean cuisine. The root can be fried, roasted, boiled, or baked into desserts. The shoots can be prepared with a marinade and different spices as a salad. Even the starch is used to make glass noodles in a very traditional Korean dish called japchae.
You may be wondering, what is so special about a Japanese sweet potato? Aren’t all sweet potatoes basically the same thing? No! In fact, I never liked the standard orange fleshed sweet potato that most people are familiar with—they were too sweet and mushy for my liking.
Japanese sweet potatoes also come in two different varieties. In Korean, they are called “bam goguma” and “mul goguma.” These two types are the same Japanese sweet potato, but their appearance and texture are slightly different depending on their growing conditions. Bam goguma, which translates to chestnut sweet potato, are usually larger in size and have a firmer and drier texture. These sweet potatoes are the most popular in Korea and are best prepared by steaming. Mul goguma, which translates to water sweet potato, are smaller and more “watery.” They generally are sweeter than the bam goguma and are best prepared by roasting.
At home, I had easy access to these delicious roots as they were always stocked in our pantry. I was unaware that this was a luxury until I moved to college, where I was forced to rely on a meal plan in my dorm’s dining hall. I will admit, for the first few weeks of my freshman year I enjoyed the all-you-can-eat facility with unlimited cups of soft serve ice cream. However, I quickly longed for the taste of home. The dining hall never served Korean food and the few Korean restaurants around campus were too pricey for me to eat there regularly.
My solution to this dilemma was my beloved Japanese sweet potato. I was out for lunch off campus and passed by an Asian grocery store. I immediately went in to see what they had to offer and saw the sweet potatoes in the produce aisle. I instinctively grabbed a bag and stocked up on these purple gems. They saved me from my homesickness and are undeniably a great choice of produce especially for college students for several reasons:
They are extremely cheap.
1. They do not have to be refrigerated, and if stored properly, they can last for months in your college dorm. They are best stored in a cool and dry area away from direct sunlight.
2. They can be cooked in the microwave. Just poke some holes, wrap in a wet paper towel, and microwave on high for about 3-5 minutes depending on the size.
3. They are high in vitamin A and other minerals that will make you feel less guilty snacking on a bag of chips.
4. They are a great source of complex carbs that will keep you full through those long two-hour lectures.
5. They can be eaten as a snack or paired with some protein and fats for a filling meal! Here are some easy recipes you can make in your dorm.
Of course, these reasons can be applied to other types of sweet potatoes, but I highly recommend trying the Murasaki variety! They have a very unique taste and texture that is very different from the standard orange sweet potato. Overall, these nutritious roots are the perfect carbohydrate choice for college students because of their affordability and versatility. For me, they gave me a little taste of home six hours away.
Heaven is 19 years old and from Williamstown, New Jersey. She is currently a biology major at the University of Pittsburgh and she loves trying new produce, especially those that are distinct to other cultures.
Photo Credits: (Top) Bam-goguma 경빈마마 [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0 )]; (Middle) Ipomoea balatas (Sweet Potato) Flower Earth100 [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)];(Bottom) Japchae pelican from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]