The smell of sweet potatoes roasting over coals is an intoxicating smell for me–a reminder of a special street food found only during the long cold winters of northeast China where I grew up. Those street vendors roasted the kind with deeply yellow flesh in old oil barrels filled with coal. And as we waited for the vendor to wrap up the sweet treats for us to go, we warmed our hands over the coals, grateful for a short respite from the chill. Roasted long and slow for hours, this particular variety gave way to flesh so sweet and soft it almost developed a deep honey, syrup-like flavor.
Needless to say I was stoked to find roasted sweet potato (satsumaimo) vendors, open all year round, right here in Tokyo.
四谷十三里屋 (Yotsuya Ju San Ri Ya)
Just inside the Ebisu station west entrance, which I pass through almost every day, is 四谷十三里屋 (Yotsuya Ju San Ri Ya). This vendor is a kiosk store, specializing in sweet potato snacks. Sitting on a warm bed of induction-heated rocks behind a glass display case, these sweet potatoes are the more polished version of the rustic street vendors of my past. Despite the presentation though, their smell–sweet and earthy–is the same one I remember.
There are usually two varieties offered, with different taste and texture profiles. For the past few months, there has been one called Kirishima Red Kagura (霧島紅かぐら) a red-skinned variety from Kirishima city in Kagoshima prefecture in southern Kyushu, an area well known for its sweet potatoes and sweet potato shochu. A second is called Tera Komachi (寺小町) from Joyo city in Kyoto prefecture. Sold by weight, at ¥216 per 100 grams for the Red Kagura, and ¥195 per 100 grams for the Komachi, expect to pay about ¥200–¥400 for a small to medium size one, and ¥400–¥500 for a larger size one.
The Kirishima Red Kagura is an intensely sweet variety with high moisture content. The flesh, a buttery yellow color, is starchier than the American Garnet or Beauregard. When roasted, the flesh–which tends to be fibrous–turns soft and honey-like in taste. The outer parts of the flesh, that were closest to the heat, caramelize into a distinctly chewy texture, like a sweet potato caramel.
The Komachi is much less sweet variety, with a very high starch content. When roasted, these have a mild chestnut-like sweetness as well as a similar dry texture. When roasted for too long, the starches can seize up, causing the flesh to become hard and chalky. Unfortunately, this is what I tasted on my last visit. Compared to the Kirishima Red, this tasted like a dried-out Russet potato.
Other sweet potato snacks sold include some sweet potato breads, and a sweet potato fries snack called 大学芋 daigaku imo (university potato). These are named as such because they originated in shops around universities in Tokyo. Thick cut sweet-potato pieces are deep fried, then candied in a sweet and savory syrup, and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. The outer candy shell is sweet and crispy with a rich molasses taste, while the inner flesh of the sweet potato is soft.
I’ve gotten into the habit of buying one in the morning and eating it on the train, or bringing one home and having it as an afternoon snack. You can, of course, bake your own sweet potatoes at home. But in my experience, that char from the grill taste is impossible to capture and recreate at home, in a conventional oven. At a fairly cheap price, this is a sweet and satisfying snack that is also a relatively healthy option.
四谷 十三里屋, 1-5-5 Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 9:00am – 9:00pm, Closed Sundays
Vendors at the Farmers Market at the UNU (Aoyama)
The Farmers Market at the UNU is a popular place on weekends in Aoyama to do some shopping for fruits and veggies, artisanal breads, snacks, and other foodstuffs. I’ve written about it previously here. Find the lane of vendors facing away from the main street, and you’ll find the vegetable stall for Bugrass Farms, and the next one over (didn’t catch the name), both of which sell fresh roasted sweet potatoes, possibly even during the summer months. Your nose will know!
The sweet potatoes are locally grown and fresh roasted in the morning, and kept warm for the market. As discussed in my previous post, Bugrass Farms sells organically grown vegetables, including their sweet potatoes. These tasted not quite as syrup-like as the Kirishima Red from Kyushu, but still were quite sweet and nicely roasted, not overdone. More pricey than Ju San Ri Ya, two medium sized ones came in at over 800 yen! I supposed the organic label also demands a hefty pricetag! Costs aside, I enjoyed their flavor immensely.
The vendor next to (or just a few down from) from Bugrass also sells a locally grown variety, that are comparatively larger. And with a more orange flesh, these reminded me of their American counterparts. These also had nice blistered skin from roasting. A satisfying snack for walking around the market!
In front of United Nations University, 5-53-70 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Hours: Saturdays and Sundays 10am – 4pm