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Seasonal spotlight: satsuma-imo

November 8, 2010

To an American, autumn in Japan is missing a number of the items and customs that make this particular season unique. Stores aren’t displaying shiny new school supplies because children here begin school in spring, Halloween decorations are everywhere but you have to look hard to find a little kid in a costume because Japanese people think that knocking on a stranger’s door and demanding candy is really weird, and obviously the Japanese don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.

But there is one thing that, once you spend a single autumn in Japan, will symbolize the season for you forever: yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato). Once summer is over this delectable treat starts showing up in convenience stores and grocery stores everywhere, but the best way to eat it is to buy a freshly roasted sweet potato from one of the many yaki-imo trucks that cruise around announcing their presence with loud recordings of some guy warbling “yaakkkiiii-immmoooo….” Or at least, that would be the best way if these trucks ever showed up when I wanted a yaki-imo. I seem to have terrible luck because the only time I encounter one is when I’m coming home from a restaurant and am already full, and inevitably when I do hear that siren call I’m either at home in my pajamas or hurrying to get somewhere. There has only been one instance in my life when I remarked “I wish I had a yaki-imo” and a truck actually serendipitously appeared, and that was when my friend Maya and I were walking aimlessly around the red light district of Kabuki-cho for some reason. But I digress.

I was looking for a video of a yaki-imo truck when I stumbled across this clip from Sazae-san, which is probably Japan’s most famous animated series. The plot of the episode involves Katsuo, the troublemaker of the Isono family, geting money from his mother to buy yaki-imo and deciding to roast his own (in a pile of fallen leaves) instead to make a profit. Good-natured hilarity ensues. (The yaki-imo truck shows up at about 1:30.

Roasted or not, sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo) are one of the true pleasures of fall in Japan. According to Wikipedia, sweet potatoes were originally brought to Japan from the Americas and were called by a variety of names as they spread north throughout the different islands. Apparently once the potatoes made to Honshū (the main island of Japan) from Kyūshū (the southernmost island) they came to be called “satsuma-imo” after Satsuma, which is the name of a former domain and province in Kyushu. (In case you’re wondering, none of this has anything whatsoever to do with the citrus fruit known in English as a “satsuma” which is called an entirely different thing in Japanese.)

I am not at all ashamed to admit that I adore satsuma-imo and find them to be significantly tastier than American sweet potatoes. They are so sweet and good that eating them feels almost like having dessert. Besides the old standby of satsuma-imo gohan (rice cooked with sweet potatoes), I like put them in miso soup or curry, simmer them with kelp or lemon to include in a bento, or eat them as tempura. Satsuma-imo are also the principle ingredient of kuri kinton, an almost overwhelmingly sweet confection that is an indispensable part of osechi (traditional food served over the New Year holidays). However, they’re delicious in Western-style desserts too – I once made a satsuma-imo and apple pie that was quite good.

There’s no reason to peel satsuma-imo before eating them because the skin is a big part of their visual (and nutritional) appeal. Depending on what looks fresh I either buy the big satsuma-imo the size of an Idaho potato or the smaller ones that are about the thickness of an American carrot but half as long. Like all vegetables of this type satsuma-imo can be kept for quite a while in a cool, dark location. Eaten in reasonable quantities they’re not even that high in calories: according to the Glico Nutrition Navigator a 100 gram serving of steamed satsuma-imo has only 131 calories but contains 3.8 grams of fiber, 490 milligrams of potassium, and 1.2 grams of protein.

I’ll be posting my recipe for sweet potato rice with black rice this Wednesday. Until then, here are a few recipes featuring satsuma-imo I’ve gathered from around the Internet. Some are fairly traditional Japanese dishes while some offer a more Western way of using this vegetable.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2010 9:24 am

    I am so jealous of the idea of a yaki imo truck. That sounds so good!

    There are a lot of “truck” restaurants popping up around San Francisco, but I’m never really able to catch up with any of them when they’re out. To me, these street vendors are almost like ice cream trucks..something I only see on television. Sadness.

    • November 8, 2010 10:40 am

      Wait- you’ve never had an ice cream truck? Don’t they have those in SF? I remember all the neighborhood kids running out to the truck when I was little. But I suppose small-town WI is a bit different. But still- I’m sure I remember hearing the jingle in Chicago when I lived there, too…

      As for the yaki-imo truck, I’ve heard them quite a bit, but never stopped at one until just a couple days ago, on our way home from a concert- it’d been just long enough after eating to be a little bit hungry, and luckily that particular truck was selling them by the 100g slice (I’d always assumed you had to buy the whole potato). Which was probably a good thing, considering the ones he had were HUGE (about 1kg/2lbs each).

      While I have to admit they’re good & all, I still think it’s more fun to hear the truck go by (or sit there parked, depending where), & listen to the slight differences in their particular jingle recording. The last one I heard outside our apt. cracked me up when it went from the really long, drawn-out yaaaaaaakimoooooooooo to a very short, staccato yakimo. imo da yo. (it’s a potato, yo!) lol Sure beats the hell out of those annoying “plz give us your old TVs & other electronic crap” trucks that crawl along blaring their plea for junk to recycle/resell at 9am every Sunday… -_-;

      • November 8, 2010 10:58 am

        Maybe the ice cream truck is a Midwestern thing? Come to think of it I think I remember seeing them in Minnesota.

        Wow, selling imo by the slice is a fantastic idea. As much as I love yaki-imo, they are pretty much one of the most filling snacks you could possibly eat.

        And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a truck with a jingle quite that bizarre (but I bet there are yaki-imo torakku otaku out there who are obsessed with recording the different songs). And YES those stupid electronic appliance trucks drive me crazy. Same with the trucks selling poles for hanging laundry. Who would ever impulse buy a laundry pole?!

      • November 9, 2010 2:27 am

        Nope. No ice cream trucks in San Francisco. Just those Latino dudes pushing the popsicle carts…..and I’ve never had one of those either!😛

    • November 8, 2010 10:52 am

      It is good! There’s just something fantastic about a roasted sweet potato…and the ones fresh from the trucks are always better than the ones from a grocery store.

      I’ve only been to San Francisco once but I’ve always assumed that there is a lot of street food there. Maybe a yaki-imo truck would be a good business opportunity!

      I hear you about the ice cream trucks, though – I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or what but I don’t think I saw an ice cream truck once during my childhood in Idaho. I was always jealous of the kids on TV…

      • November 8, 2010 1:16 pm

        I’ve seen trucks in San Francisco.. but way more common are ice cream push carts in the parks. I bought ice cream bars and cups from ice cream carts all the time growing up, especially in the Mission District, since most of them were Mexican vendors. I saw them on the streets sometimes, too.. though that wasn’t quite as common because of timing and all.

  2. November 8, 2010 1:12 pm

    Eric beat me to commenting about this.. but very timely post! I told him the story of us having yaki-imo in kabukicho after we stopped at the truck that’s always parked on our way home from Baba on Saturday night. Like you I almost never manage to walk by one when I’m hungry, but we’d had an early dinner that day, and were returning home around 11:30pm, so it seemed like a good time to get one.

    I was really surprised and happy to see that it was being sold by the 100g cut! I don’t know if that’s common at that particular truck, or because the crazy weather produced larger than average satsumaimo this year, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it. Usually they just have big, medium and small available.

    The yaki-imo man tried to convince me that 100g was too small of a piece, but I assured him it was just for dessert. We ate it on our (cold!) walk home, and it was fantastic. Given a choice, though, I’d rather get a smaller whole yaki-imo, because the skin to satsumaimo proportions was too low with the slice!

    • November 9, 2010 9:50 am

      Hmm…that’s a good point. Although smaller portions are a good idea, the skin-to-potato ratio is of supreme importance.

      Darn it, all this talk of yaki-imo has made me really want one. Maybe it’s time to go back to Kabukicho! Either that or find a place where we can have a bonfire.

  3. November 8, 2010 7:16 pm

    thanks for the mention🙂 I usually see these yaki-imo trucks around Osaka during the daytime, definitely delicious right out of the oven!

    • November 9, 2010 9:45 am

      No problem and thank you for visiting! I’ve never actually seen one during the day before although a fresh yaki-imo sounds like a really good afternoon snack…

  4. November 13, 2010 5:46 pm

    LMAO at the guy in the video selling yakiimo to pick up chicks. >_<; And the BOOK! 女性にモテるテクニック!

    • November 14, 2010 1:56 pm

      Yes, because those yakiimo truck drivers are so studly! Although I guess there is some appeal to a guy who can provide a constant supply of sweet potatoes…

      That’s a fantastic book title.😀

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