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Jan 5, 2023

HOW TOThe Wholesome and Hearty World of Satsuma Imo, Japanese Sweet Potatoes

What has purple skin and creamy white flesh that turns yellow with a little heat? Satsuma imo! This visually stunning potato is a total gem packed with nutrients and a versatile ingredient for making food and even drinks.

Jan 5, 2023

Japan’s uniquely sweet “satsuma imo”

Satsumaimo, or Japanese sweet potato in English, is an irreplaceable staple of Japanese cuisine. But what exactly does satsuma imo mean? While imo means potato, Japanese sweet potatoes are as much a potato as the sweet potato. In fact, they’re from completely different families – the potato is a nightshade, while the Japanese sweet potato and its western cousin are morning glories.

Sweet potato, unsurprisingly, has a sweeter flavor than potato, and Japanese sweet potato is sweeter still! This sweet flavor profile makes it an ideal ingredient not only for savory dishes but also for desserts. For example, daigaku imo (lit. college potato) is a honey-glazed, deep-fried Japanese sweet potato snack that is much loved in fall and winter as an afternoon snack or dessert in Japan.

The Japanese sweet potato’s long journey to popularity

Surprisingly, sweet potatoes are not native to Japan. Originating from Mexico and Central America, journeyed through many countries before making it to the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa) in the early 1600s. Here is where the ‘satsuma’ part of satsuma imo becomes clear. Riemon Maeda, a Japanese fisherman, brought sweet potatoes back to his hometown of Satsuma, a former province in what is now known as Kagoshima Prefecture.

The climate in Satsuma was perfect for growing sweet potatoes, and it didn’t take long for them to spread across Japan. Today, Kagoshima is known as the “Land of Sweet Potatoes” and is the largest producer of Japanese sweet potatoes in Japan.

Discovering many different flavors and cooking styles

Japanese sweet potatoes are super versatile and can be used in a number of different ways. A simple yet delicious dish easily made at home is the yaki imo. All you need to do is wrap a Japanese sweet potato in foil and pop it in the oven for about an hour. Another variation is melt-in-your-mouth satsumaimo tempura. For added sweetness, you can cut the Japanese sweet potato into thicker slices and cook them longer.

Besides savory dishes, the Japanese sweet potato is utilized in mouthwatering desserts. A Japanese sweet simply called ‘sweet potato’ is a baked satsuma imo mixed with eggs and sugar, then reformed to resemble a… Japanese sweet potato! These sweet spuds also make an appearance in traditional osechi ryori (New Year’s meal) for the New Year in the form of kuri kinton, which is essentially mashed satsuma imo with candied chestnuts.

To your health! Distilling a unique taste for discerning drinkers

If eating this remarkable vegetable isn’t enough for you, you’ll be pleased to find out that it’s also available as an alcoholic beverage. Shochu begins with koji fermentation using rice or Japanese sweet potatoes for added umami, and uses a single distillation method that requires high quality ingredients and imparts natural flavors from the start.

Surprisingly, shochu outsells sake in Japan by almost double – and with good reason. Besides being able to use shochu as a cocktail base, you could also go so far as to say that shochu has health benefits in moderation. It doesn’t have any sugar, carbs or gluten, is comparatively low in calories and is more effective at stimulating the production of urokinase, which breaks up blood clots and improves circulation.

Who knew that Japanese sweet potatoes could be so versatile!