In My Search for Korean Identity, the Sweet Potato Was My Guide

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Libby Burns)

After university, I moved by myself to Korea to teach English, leaving behind the mild-mannered Midwest to begin a new life in a foreign country. Only that, to me, this country wasn’t completely foreign. It was where I was born. Then abandoned. Then adopted from.

And, ultimately, it was where I wanted to return to take my first real stab at adulthood.

Over my four years in Korea, I did a lot of navigating — of spaces, of cultures, of questions with no answers, of feelings that sent me soaring and then spiraling. Along the wayward path, food and drink were something like a north star. They invariably supported me. There were the usual suspects: American burgers and French fries; Korean comfort food like oily, meaty stews and grilled meats; and, predictably, soju and other high-powered alcohols.

But, less predictably, another item would surpass them all: the sweet potato latte.

A popular drink on Korean cafe menus, the sweet potato, or goguma, latte is the perfect purée of sweet potatoes, milk, and sugar. A bit of a misnomer, this drink doesn’t contain a drop of coffee or espresso. But the silkiness of its steamed milk is reminiscent of a latte. And while the sweetness of its potato, underscored by a dash of sugar, brings to mind a fancy dessert beverage, its three-ingredient simplicity makes the drink unassuming to its core.

Then there is the star of the goguma latte — the Korean sweet potato. The Korean sweet potato is distinguished by its purplish skin, ivory flesh, and nutty, almost chestnut-like flavor. And, in Korea, it’s no mere tuber — it’s a food icon.

The journey of the sweet potato then, in some ways, mirrors the journey of the nation

Goguma are so beloved, they are a part of Korean community and culture. Friends and family eat them the simple way (plain, without oil, butter, or a hint of seasoning). Koreans have also figured out how to eat them dressed up in every way imaginable, in chips, breads, and cakes and even as a puréed pizza topping. The journey of the sweet potato then, in some ways, mirrors the journey of the nation — going from war-torn, food-scarce, and marked by the humblest of dishes, to industrialized, wealthy, and home to an endless array of eating options.

As a Korean-American adoptee out to cultivate a Korean identity, I came to love goguma as much as anybody else. Over the years it became a small, if silly, marker of being Korean for me. And perhaps it signified something even bigger. There is an almost universal quality to the sweet potato, being a staple in so many different cultures around the world. Unlike kimchi and soju and most other uniquely Korean foods and drinks I encountered in Korea, the sweet potato felt familiar. It was at once Korean and American. It was like me.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

These days, in my life in New York, I miss being Korean in Korea often. The nostalgia comes and goes, and it’s prompted by triggers big and small. There are the anticipated moments, like when I read a news story about the latest Samsung launch, Korean presidential scandal, or K-pop sensation, or when I count down to each Korean holiday.

But there are the unanticipated moments, too. If, unexpectedly, I should catch a whiff of a cherry blossom tree or ginseng tea or fermented soybean paste — or, of course, a cooked sweet potato — the memories come at me like an ambush. In one bittersweet sniff, I’m instantly transported to another time and place: I’m 22; I’m in Suwon, Korea; I’m figuring out what it means to live life on my own.

As a middle school teacher, I remember sharing steaming-hot sweet potatoes with my colleagues and students in the school office. We would microwave a plastic bag of them, pass it around the room, peel off the purple skin, and gobble up the creamy flesh within. When Korea’s burnished falls turned to whitewashed winters, I would bundle up and stroll around the city, breathing in the cold, chestnut-scented air as gray-haired men and women sold roasted sweet potatoes on the street.

I remember, too, ordering my first goguma latte, when Korea was still brand new to me, and picking things off the menu was a grand adventure. The barista presented the steaming mug; I took a sip, with no idea what was inside, only knowing I was wild about it.

In one bittersweet sniff, I’m instantly transported to another time and place: I’m 22; I’m in Suwon, Korea; I’m figuring out what it means to live life on my own.

After Korea, easing back into American life was not easy. It was like going through a long, tumultuous process of withdrawal. In my new home of New York, I remedied my Korea-sickness by eating Korean food that didn’t quite taste the same, by buying Korean products that sold for three times as much as they did in Korea, and by joining a Korean meetup group full of strangers. I also searched, somewhat frantically, for the sweet potato latte.

In my hunt, I went to Korean coffee chains like Caffe Bene and Tous Les Jours; I poked around Koreatown in Manhattan and Koreatown in Long Island. I couldn’t find a goguma latte anywhere.

Finally, it occurred to me I could just make it myself — it is, after all, just three easy-to-find ingredients. So I did. And although I hadn’t used a blender in years, my first goguma latte in the U.S. came out just right.

Today I still turn to the sweet potato latte every time I’m feeling sentimental. And even though, the drink has since appeared on (and sometimes subsequently disappeared from) a few cafe menus around the city, I still choose to make it myself. Here’s how I do it, and here’s how you can, too.

Get the Recipe: Sweet Potato Latte