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.