Yaki-imo: The sweet potato treat full of flavor, with zero guilt
Japanese sweet potatoes are definitely a case of truth in advertising, especially when they’re roasted to bring out more of their flavor. Yaki-imo, as Japan calls roasted sweet potatoes, have dessert-level sweetness. Yaki-imo are a favorite autumn snack that can be bought from supermarkets or street vendors selling them from stalls, or even trucks with cooking stoves on their beds.
As an added bonus, sweet potatoes don’t just taste good, they’re good for you too. You could probably guess that they’re a great source of fiber, but they’re also high in potassium and Vitamins A, B6 and C. If you’re looking for a way to boost your cold resistance but don’t enjoy citrus, sweet potatoes are here to help while sparing you from sourness. Best of all, sweet potatoes are a low-calorie treat, with fewer calories per gram than white rice.
Japan’s most expensive sweet potato
So Japanese sweet potatoes are sweet, but which is the sweetest? That would be the beni haruka, a variety first grown by Japanese farmers in 2007. After harvesting, beni haruka are allowed to age about a month before distribution in order to enhance their sweetness.
Raw beni haruka have a sugar content of about 40 percent, which rises to about 50-60 percent when roasted. The sweetest beni haruka of all are a subspecies called amaboshi, which can reach a sugar content of up to 79 and sell for 2,500 yen (US$18) per kilogram, about eight times what sweet potatoes usually go for in the U.S.
Is the beni haruka as sweet as reported? A taste test
Amaboshi aside, beni haruka are still an affordable snack. You can pick one, already roasted, at the supermarket for about 200 yen, which we did for a taste-test comparison with a “silk sweet” sweet potato, which has a sugar content of only about 8.8 percent.
You’ll notice that both have some moisture seeping through their skins, which is because Japanese yaki-imo produce a natural sweet sticky glaze as they heat up. Either one is a stupendously scrumptious spud, but if it’s superior sweetness you’re looking for, the beni haruka is the one you want. It’s sweet from the instant it hits your taste buds and gets even sweeter as you chew, with the soft, moist potato taking on a buttery consistency.
Sweet potatoes in snacks and breads
Even though yaki-imo are sweet enough to stand on their own as a dessert, in the fall Japan also has a huge variety of seasonal sweet potato sweets that you can find at every place from humble convenience stores to high-end confectionary specialty shops.
Sweet potato lends itself especially well to mixing into creams and pastes and in the fall it’s hard to beat a hot cup of tea accompanied by a dumpling filled with sweet potato anko (sweet bean paste), kenpi (crispy candied sweet potato strips) and sweet potato chips. Just about every bakery in Japan rolls out some sort of special pastry with sweet potato cream at its center or sweet potato chunks in the dough. There’s even sweet potato ice cream for those who don’t mind frozen treats on a crisp autumn day.
You haven’t fully experienced all Japan has to offer your palate until you’ve tried yaki-imo. There’s nothing quite like the joy of eating a roasted sweet potato as-is.