Daigaku Imo: Candied Sweet Potatoes

Now that the temperature has really dropped and the leaves on our family farm have started to turn orange, it really feels like time to eat autumn foods. In Japan daigaku imo, candied sweet potatoes, are being eaten at food stands, festivals and at home. I read about them in a list of some seasonal food in Japan and was very excited because while some ingredients are really hard to find in my area, the local co-op always has Japanese sweet potatoes in stock. 

Okay, so I've noticed there is a lot of confusion around sweet potatoes and yams. Let's just start with saying that the vegetables in your grocery store that are marked "yam" (the orange ones as they are often called) are, in fact, just a variety of sweet potato. Real yams are giant tubers that are native to Africa. Sweet potatoes are a North American root vegetable that has many different varieties. After Columbus and other explores brought sweet potatoes (and regular potatoes which are not related) back to Europe, they became very popular and spread all over the world. 

In the early 1700s the sweet potato arrived in Japan, probably via China. Over years of cultivation, the country achieved it's own variety of sweet potato, satsuma-imo. They also have purple fleshed Okinawan true yams, beni-imo, but I don't want to confuse you with more yam talk.  I have had Japanese sweet potatoes many times and really like both the flavor and the texture. They are much dryer and starchier than regular sweet potatoes, which makes them ideal for simmering or steaming. The flavor is mild and the texture is velvety. I really love them in Japanese curry!

In Japan they eat them a lot in the fall and winter, both plain either (boiled or steamed) and in other foods such as wagashi (Japanese sweets) or cooked in rice. They also use sweet potatoes to make shochu, a strong alcohol. When the weather turns cold all over Japan men drive the streets, calling out a song that is some variant of "Ishii ya-kimo, yaki-imo, yaki-imo." They are yaki-imo men and they are selling roasted sweet potatoes. I've heard that Japanese children chase after the yaki-imo man like American children with ice cream trucks. They've been at it for over a hundred years, originally wheeling carts. I don't think they'd do very well in America, not unless they also offered lots of butter and marshmallows to go with them, but I could see daigaku imo catching on.

Aparently candied sweet potatoes are usually fried, then coated in a sugary syrup and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The recipe I tracked down on Just One Cookbook had a quicker and easier way of doing it. All in all, it took about a half hour, and fifteen minutes of that was soaking the sweet potatoes in water to remove excess starch. After they are cooked, the soft sweet potatoes have a sticky caramel like coating that gives them a magnificent flavor and crunch. I had used all my black sesame seeds to make goma kukki (sesame cookies), so I had to use white, but I still think that it was amazing! I recommend eating this when it is hot. I brought some to work with me for a snack and while they were still tasty, it wasn't nearly as awesome. 

As the fall continues I'm going to make more sweet potato dishes, so stay tuned. 

Until next time, stay sweet!

Side note, this is my twentieth post! Thank you so much for all the support that my readers have been giving me, this blog has been a dream come true.