Tastes of Japan: Yaki-imo

With the days shortening, the nights cooling and mellow winds bringing in the smell of farmers burning their leaves, autumn is arriving in Japan. The first bright orange leaves are a welcomed sight around here, signalling the final days of oppressive heat and unpredictable summer storms and giving the residents of Kyoto a much anticipated–if brief–reprieve between the temperature extremes of summer and winter. Seasonal dishes are also changing around now, and perhaps no other food in Kyoto is a better symbol of the coming of autumn than the sweet potato.

Sold in convenience stores all over the city, yaki-imo, or baked sweet potato is as ubiquitous a sight (and smell) as oden between the months of October and February. Wrapped in foil and baked over embers or in burning leaves, this simple, fragrant snack is incredibly popular in Japan, and a perfect food for keeping the chill out of the body. When cooked to perfection is it soft, hot and flaky, with a sweet and starchy flavor that is sure to fill you up fast.

Unsurprisingly, sweet potatoes aren’t native to Japan. They were introduced in the early 1700s and quickly became popular as a reliable crop when violent summer storms could wipe out other staple foods. They are used in the Tsukimi autumn moon festival, where they are cooked in a variety of ways and offered to the moon in hopes of a plentiful harvest for the year. They are also sometimes used in shoju liquor, and are frequently baked in pastries around this time of year. Personally, I like the caramelized sweet potatoes with the black sesame seeds best.

Japanese snack foods also capitalize on the popularity of yaki-imo during the autumn months. Calbee brand Osatsu is a light, baked sweet potato snack which is yaki-imo flavored. They are one of Alex’s favorites. It’s incredibly easy to go through an entire bag of these without even realizing it.

Autumn is a great time for visiting Japan. The weather is mild, the colors of the trees are stunning, and the food is flavorful. If you happen to be in Kyoto during this time, have a taste of yaki-imo, fresh off the embers, to warm yourself up in between the gorgeous sights of the changing of the seasons.

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6 thoughts on “Tastes of Japan: Yaki-imo

  1. One delicious post! Yum! We don’t eat sweet potatoes enough, and they are plentiful – and of course a staple of Southern cooking.
    It somehow didn’t register that you were in Kyoto, which is where we spent most of our time when we were visiting Japan for a conference. It was in August, so it was indeed hot, and the cicadas made it difficult to be heard at times. But we loved the shrines and history everywhere, and of course the food.

    • I never had a sweet potato before I came to Japan. They don’t tolerate the cold very well, so they aren’t exceptionally abundant in Canada. Kyoto is one of the most beautiful places in Japan (that I’ve seen so far) though Sapporo is also very lovely. I lived in Tokyo when I first arrived. One thing they don’t tell expats living over here is that in the middle of summer, the sun rises at 4am and the cicadas come out at 4:30. I didn’t sleep for an entire week my first month here. Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve lived her for five years now. 🙂

      • That’s still up in the air. We probably won’t be here permanently, but how many more years we’ll be here we haven’t decided. The pros and cons of staying vs. returning to the west are pretty much equal right now.

  2. I bought some at Superstore once because they were out of more-American sweet potatoes, and treated them similarly. It worked. But these methods look way yummier!

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