Yakiimo and the Yakiimo Truck
Yakiimo, or baked Japanese sweet potatoes, are the quintessential winter street food in Japan. The humble baked sweet potato occupies the same space in the Japanese winter food landscape as pumpkin spice, gingerbread, and peppermint do here in the US. It’s no surprise when you consider the flavor-- satsumaimo, when baked are light, fluffy and surprisingly sweet. Taking a bite, it is hard to believe what you’re eating is just a potato with no added sweeteners or flavoring. Starting in about mid-autumn in Japan, you can find all kinds of yakiimo flavored goods popping up all over the place. Stores will carry everything from yakiimo flavored pastries and breads to yakiimo potato chips and candy. But perhaps the most interesting phenomenon relating to the popular snack occurs in the small, winding back streets of the neighborhoods of Japan.
Trundling slowly along these back streets, food trucks selling freshly baked yakiimo can be found throughout the winter in a manner startlingly similar to that of ice cream trucks driving around during the summer in the US. The yakiimo trucks even play a distinct, recognizable song through a PA system to attract customers (Mister Softee anyone?). Their plaintive chant roughly translates to “Hot fresh sweet potato, sweet potato, sweet potato! Freshly baked and tastes great!” and is known to draw not only children, but flocks young women and middle-aged housewives. The sweet potatoes sold from the truck are slowly baked in a hot stone oven so they are the peak of their tastiness-- hot, fluffy, sweet and perfect.
In recent years, due to economic shifts, the number of yakiimo trucks driving around in winter-time Japan has declined, making them a somewhat rarer sight than they once were. However, that does not mean that yakiimo itself is any harder to find. In the wake of the lack of trucks, most convenience stores and supermarkets have started selling yakiimo, and pop-up street vendors selling the vegetable remain very common. Yakiimo is also extremely simple to make, provided you have access to an oven and decent quality Japanese sweet potatoes.
Try out the following recipe to make delicious yakiimo right in your own home!
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 2.5 hrs
Total: 2.5 hrs
3-4 satsumaimo sweet potatoes
First, you will want to choose the sweetest satsumaimo. One way to judge the sweetness is to check the ends of the potato. The sweeter ones will have small deposits of shiny dark brown syrup exuding from the flesh on the ends. Once you have acquired your sweet potatoes, the rest of the steps are fairly simple.
Wash the dirt from the sweet potato skin and pat dry.
Place sweet potatoes on a baking tray and put the tray into the cold oven.
Bake sweet potatoes at 375 degrees F (190 C) for 90 minutes or until soft
Turn off the oven, then leave the sweet potatoes inside with the door closed for another 60 minutes.
Remove from oven and enjoy!
For a potato with a softer skin and more moist interior, you can try wrapping the potatoes in aluminum foil for baking. For crispier skin, and a slightly sweeter, drier texture leave the foil off. Whichever method you choose is up to your personal taste, as either way will yield a wonderful baked sweet potato.