Friday, January 19, 2007

Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Since I was born and raised in a small rural town, I rarely saw travelling food vendors unless there was a carnival in town. Since moving to Tokyo, I've seen quite a few who offer a variety of food items depending on the season. Most of them offer up uniquely Japanese delicacies (like octopus dumplings) and I don't care much for them. The only ones my husband and I have ever sampled are gyoza (pot stickers) and roasted sweet potatoes.

The picture above is of a man who sells roasted sweet potatoes out of the back of his truck. You can see that he's got wood stacked up next to his oven. The wood cooking lends a unique taste and a wonderful smell to the potatoes. These trucks drive around neighborhoods playing a tape of a sing-song announcement so you know when they're close enough to purchase from.

The truck in these pictures was at a relatively well-trafficked intersection on New Year's day. This was part of the large batch of photos my husband got at that time but it wasn't specifically related to holiday activities as these trucks are around fairly often during the colder seasons, not only on holidays.

I used to have my husband run out and buy one of these potatoes for me on occasion when I heard them rolling by. The main problem I had with them (which compelled me to stop buying them) was that the potatoes are far too large for one person to eat at once and too dry to be very good when re-heated.

In the U.S., orange yams are the most common form of "sweet potato" and are generally served as part of holiday meals. In Japan, it's a large purple-skinned tuber with yellow flesh inside. I have prepared them myself for muffins or as a side dish in the past but they are exceptionally hard to handle. They are very hard to peel and secrete a sticky fluid when the skin is removed. I'm not sure if this is a property of all sweet potatoes or just the Japanese ones but it does dissuade me from preparing them on my own. I guess the fact that they're a pain to deal with is one of the reasons they are sold pre-cooked and cleaned in vacuum sealed bags in Japanese markets.

Lately, a local convenience store (QQ - a 100 yen shop) has been selling roasted sweet potatoes at the check-out counter. They smell good but I'm not sure if they'd measure up to the ones sold from the trucks. They do have the benefit of being smaller and cheaper (only 100 yen whereas the ones from trucks are 200-300 yen in my experience).

Recently, I found the sweet potato bean cakes pictured above in a local market and decided to give them a try. They were shockingly sweet and had an intense sweet potato flavor. In fact, it almost seemed like they were flavored with a sweet potato liqueur. They also seemed to have very little actual bean in them and may not be a bad souvenir for people to take home (provided your friends and family generally like the taste of sweet potatoes and very sweet treats).

When I worked in an office, sweet potato treats were a common omiyage (souvenir) when salesmen travelled to other cities and picked up an obligatory treat for the rest of the office. They were one of the few things I was always happy to sample.


mitzh said...

I love yaki imo!

But, I do agree with you, they are quite big for one person to eat.
I've tasted sweet potatoes sold from convenience stores but it just doesn't have the same taste as to the ones sold from trucks...

Have a great weekend and take care!

Shari said...

I figured the convenience store ones probably wouldn't be as good. In a way, the fact that it's a seasonal treat which can only be purchased when the trucks are in the area makes it special. Convenience stores selling it rather undermines that feeling so I won't support them by patronizing them.