Summer in Taiwan made George Lee’s skin itch: The humidity trapped the sweat on his body, the air thick and heavy. On these “dreadful” days, Lee dipped into a convenience store, making a beeline for the freezer, its door soaked with condensation. He’d pluck one of the perforated plastic bags and re-emerge into the sweltering heat, pulling a frozen sweet potato out of the freezer bag, biting into the custardy cold flesh. Then — and only then — summer was bearable. “It’s so nostalgic,” says Lee, a 19-year-old cook, who has amassed an immense fanbase on Instagram and TikTok for his vegan cooking videos and recipes. “It has this caramel ice cream flavor and texture.”
In Taiwan, Lee says that the wonderfully simple treat of a frozen baked sweet potato (冰烤地瓜) is easy enough to find in a convenience store’s freezer, or in some places, sold on the street from coolers. In California though, where Lee now goes to school, he can’t just walk into a gas station and leave with a sweet potato popsicle. “You can’t find it anywhere. You just have to make it on your own,” he says.
Recently, Lee shared a video explaining how to prepare this snack with his half-million Instagram followers, and there were more than a few confused comments. Many of his followers, he realized only after posting the video, had never eaten a still-frozen sweet potato. They couldn’t picture the texture of the icy tuber: “Would it be solid… when I eat them the next day,” asked one commenter. “Eat frozen or let it defrost?” asked another, with a confused hand-to-chin emoji. “I didn’t expect people would be so surprised,” Lee says. “A lot of people were like, ‘What is this?’ A minority of my audience who are based in Taiwan were like, ‘This is my favorite thing ever.’ I just love to see that people feel like they can reconnect with part of their childhood or their culture, through watching some of my videos.”
The process, as Lee outlines in the recipe on his website, is really quite simple. If Lee were still in Taiwan, he’d start with a certain orange sweet potato variety which he hasn’t been able to find in America. In the States, he opts for Japanese sweet potatoes, the purple-skinned satsuma-imo, with its pale yellow flesh. “You have to choose small- to medium-size sweet potatoes, because larger ones tend to be starchier and harder to cook evenly,” he says. Lee turns the sweet potatoes over in his hands, making sure they haven’t started sprouting — once they begin to sprout, he says, the sugars leech out. He scrubs the skin, polishing away any dirt, so it’s good to eat once the potato is baked. (“The skin is really, really good. Like, so tasty.”)
Lee then balances the cleaned sweet potatoes directly on an oven shelf, the temperature set to 450 degrees, so the high heat can circulate evenly. The sweet potatoes cook for about an hour, but Lee says he knows they’re done when he squeezes them with his tongs and “the skin feels hollow, because we didn’t poke any holes or anything in the skin. The moisture in the sweet potato will come out and push the skin outward. So the flesh will separate from the skin.” When sugars begin to ooze from each sweet potato — you may want to put a sheet tray on the shelf below — the smell of dark caramel fills the kitchen.
From here, there are two options. On days when he doesn’t feel like waiting hours to eat, Lee places a sweet potato on an uncovered plate — to prevent condensation — in the freezer. After five or 10 minutes, a chill has set through to the center. This makes for a good, refreshingly chilled sweet potato, but it won’t bring on that ice cream texture — it’s worth seeing this process through to the end. When he has more time, and his craving isn’t so ferocious, Lee lets the sweet potatoes cool completely in their skin on the countertop before putting them in a freezer-safe bag. “Around five hours is the perfect freezing time,” he says. You’ll know they’re ready when the sweet potatoes take on a “soft and creamy texture. When you feel the sweet potato, you can feel that it’s firm, but it’s still soft, like grabbing ice cream that has a skin on it. Like a Häagen-Dazs ice cream bar.”
Without easy access to convenience store freezers loaded with sweet potatoes, Lee keeps a batch of home-baked ones in his freezer at all times. (There’s a good case to be made for keeping sweet potatoes in the freezer before baking, too.) “I eat one every morning while I have classes, or I’m doing work. It’s still frozen so you have to eat it slowly, and just savor the morning,” Lee says. As the comments on Lee’s Instagram video proved, it’s difficult to imagine just how creamy, how soothingly cold, how ice cream-y the freezer transformation of a sweet potato really is until you’ve tried it for yourself. As Lee puts it when I ask him to elaborate on the flavor: “It just tastes like summer.”