Not your usual yam: packed with nutrients and delicious in any dish, the Japanese sweet potato is perfect for fall.
With autumn in full swing, the air is crisp and the trees are just about bare. Toques, scarves and gloves have come out of storage and are beginning to make their annual appearance. Adults cap their evenings with warm cups of tea by the fireplace while children anxiously await the Christmas season. And while we are bombarded with all things pumpkin here in Canada, there’s another vegetable dominating Japanese kitchen tables at this time of year: the sweet potato.
Satsuma-imo, or Japanese sweet potato, isn’t quite the yam you may be picturing. Milder in flavour and subtler in sweetness than its familiar counterpart, satsuma-imo thrives in Japan but can be a challenge to track down outside the country. Originating in Central and South America, this tuberous root vegetable was first introduced to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands (modern-day Okinawa) by the Chinese in the early seventeenth century. A few years later, it found a home in Kagoshima on Kyushu Island, where 80% of Japan’s satsuma-imo harvest takes place today—giving this region the apt nickname “Land of the Sweet Potato.”
For good reason, satsuma-imo has been an au- tumn staple in Japan for hundreds of years. Rich in vitamin C, potassium and dietary fibre, this versatile veggie is a welcome addition to just about any diet. Roast it, boil it, steam it, bake it into a cheesecake or use it to brew the Japanese liquor shochu—the culinary possibilities abound with this sweet and guilt-free treat, and your health will certainly thank you. Low in calories but high in water content and dietary fibre, satsuma-imo is ideal for anyone trying to lose a few pounds or maintain their weight. Nutritional elements like jalapin help regulate digestion while hyalouric acid is said to repair skin and possibly even prevent wrinkles. Some have gone as far as crediting the Japanese sweet potato with helping to combat lung and intestinal cancers.
This fall, bypass your usual yams and see if you can find satsuma-imo in an Asian supermarket. Keep an eye out for its light yellow colouring or pick up the purple variety, murasaki-imo. In fact, if you happen to visit Japan as we head into winter weather, stop by a market and you could find yourself faced with a hundred or so varieties of sweet potatoes! Ranging from beni azuma and naruto kintoki (popular in eastern and western Japan, respectively) to tosabeni (great for making a cheesecake) and kougane sengan (revered as the best sweet potato for brewing shochu), there’s one for every palate. Want to try the king of the crop? Go for Tanegashima’s gold imo, a fan favourite due to its captivating transformation from red when raw to brilliant gold when cooked.
Hungry yet? As the chilly season sets in, dig into a hearty plate of roasted satsuma-imo, or bring out the root’s core sweetness by pairing it with strawberries and apple slices. And don’t forget to eat the skins—they’re the healthiest part!