All About Japan

The Sensual Aroma of Sweet Potatoes

Food & Drink

A few years back I was picking autumn vegetables at one of my designated farmer’s fields in north Osaka when the sharp sound of ringing bells rang through the chilly late afternoon air. As the sounds drew closer, gaps between the ringing started to fill with a long, repetitive chant: “Yaki-imo … Yaki-imo … Yaki-imo …”

What is that? It's stone-roasted sweet potatoes with a long, rich flavor memorably matched by their sensual aroma. Yaki means grilled and imo translates to potato.

There are different ways to make yaki-imo. Wrapping a sweet potato in aluminum foil and burying it in hot wood-stove embers is one. Another method is to coat them with a salty batter made from egg whites, flour and salt then slowly bake them for a few hours. One traditional method called ishi-yaki-imo involves a rotating barrel with hot stones at the bottom over which the potatoes slowly roast.

Animated purveyors of ishi-yaki-imo can be found throughout the countryside in Japan, including farmers markets where they whet the appetite of shoppers before entering. It reminds me of roasted chestnut stands parked outside sports arenas on busy corners throughout North America and Europe.

It is a deeply enchanting experience on a bitter cold day to inhale the sweet, warm aromas of slowly baked sweet potatoes. Even better is to bite into the soft creamy texture and allow its warmth to radiate inside your body.

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