There’s a certain Thanksgiving dish that, with one bite, takes me back to my favorite winter comfort food in Asia: sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the most popular winter street foods throughout China, Japan, Korea, and basically any country in East Asia with temperatures that drops below freezing.
In the USA, we know the typical sweet potato dish at Thanksgiving as a diabetic’s worst nightmare: mashed yams sprinkled in brown sugar and baked with a blanket of marshmallows. In China and Japan, however, sweet potatoes are prepared au natural: just the potato, wrapped in foil or paper, and baked until soft and moist.
This year for Thanksgiving I made sweet potatoes the boring Asian way: as-is, wrapped in tin foil, and baked in the oven. When I cut open the juicy potato and took a moist and creamy bite of that buttery flesh, I was instantly transported back to China and Japan.
Sweet Potatoes in Japan
Japan, the supposed land of the future. Where else can you use an automated toilet, get checked into your hotel by robots, and ride a bullet train? Japan is credited with inventing the ‘just-in-time’ business model and some of the best AI robotics in the world. This is a truly advanced nation, right?
Well, let me tell you, technologically advanced Japan has no central heating.
I repeat, Japan has no central heating.
In Tokyo, temperatures can drop down to 30 F (-1 C). Where I lived in Niigata (aka, snow country), I often had to walk through literal snow tunnels in 10 F (-12 C) degree weather to get to my job. When I returned home from work, the kotatsu (heated table) and space heater were the only ways I avoided hypothermia in my paper-walled apartment.
In a place where you are constantly cold with little reprieve, one really appreciates the little things. A hot bath. A warm bowl of miso soup. A heated blanket.
One winter night, while I was sitting in seiza and practicing calligraphy with my sensei and classmates during our shodo lesson, I heard a loud cry outside.
I stopped my brush mid-air and looked around, spooked. Was this the Japanese ghost of Niigata here to finally put us out of our cold misery and send us to the fiery warmths of hell?
“Mary! Put down that brush and put on your coat!” My calligraphy teacher said with glee as she ran toward the door. “We have to get some fresh yaki-imo.”
In Japanese, the word for potato is “imo.” Sweet potato is “satsumai-imo.” Since saying “yaki-satsumai-imo” is a mouthful, this snack is called “yaki-imo” for brevity’s sake.
I followed my sensei outside into the cold to find an older woman, bundled up from head-to-toe, pushing around a cart hoisting a cauldron filled with individually wrapped yaki-imo. The sweet smell of the potatoes wafted into the quiet, wintery night.
The cart already had a line of neighbors waiting to buy yaki-imo; they rubbed their cold hands together in eager anticipation to bite into that sweet and fluffy potato.
My sensei handed me a wrapped potato and I relished in its warmth. I unwrapped the potato and held it up to my nose and cheeks, blissfully enjoying the heat from the potato’s fresh roast. I looked around to see others unwrapping their yaki-imos and eating them, skin and all, like an ice cream cone. As I often did in Japan, I copied my surroundings and followed suit: I took a bite into the potato.
The sweet richness of the potato melted in my mouth, warming my cold body with each bite. I unwrapped the potato slowly, bite-by-bite, utterly relishing in its intense flavors and soothing warmth.
From that day forward, whenever I heard the wail of yaaakiii-iiimooo from my apartment, I ran outside as fast as I could and lined up for that potato. It was the festive treat of my Niigata winters.
Sweet Potatoes in Beijing
I’m not scared of winter, I said to my fellow Chinese language classmates at Tsinghua University in Beijing. After all, I grew up in the harsh mountains of Utah. I was a child of the rugged mountain west — I wasn’t afraid of snow or below freezing temperatures.
But oh, nothing could have prepared me for that first winter in Beijing.
Beijing winters are brutally cold and can drop down to -17 F (-27 C). In fact, some days were so cold that we couldn’t even go to class. There were some mornings I left my dorm and, quite literally, felt my lungs freeze. My tears and eyelashes often froze the moment I set foot outdoors.
Unlike Japan, Beijing is shockingly more developed in its heating system with its widespread access to central heating (unfortunately the southern regions, including Shanghai, do not get central heating despite being almost as cold at times). Although one could live in relative comfort indoors, venturing outdoors for groceries or class was like prepping for a journey into the arctic. If dressed unprepared for a Beijing winter, the threat of hypothermia was a very real one indeed.
In Beijing, I legit looked like the Michelin tire man (the green version). I wore layers upon layers of sweaters, leggings, and thermal socks, topped with a massive green down-feather jacket. I wrapped a scarf around my face, put on ear muffs, and donned an ultra warm winter beanie hat with warm cotton gloves.
I did not merely walk around in Beijing during the winter. I waddled.
And often times, I waddled right up to my favorite street food stand: the sweet potato cart.
Unlike in Japan, the vendors don’t wail out “sweet potato” to announce their presence. Instead, one merely has to smell that sweet aroma drifting through the air to know that the sweet potato seller is nearby.
In Chinese, a baked sweet potato is most commonly called “hong-shu,” which literally means red potato. In the north, I heard they often refer to it as “bai-shu,” which means white potato. Although the latter kind of doesn’t make sense, I copied the locals and called it red or white potato accordingly.
Eating a hong-shu (or bai-shu?) was one of my favorite memories in Beijing. I often stopped by the sweet potato food cart with classmates or Chinese friends in tow for a warm snack on those frigid Beijing nights.
Food Evoked Memories
It’s a typical line they say in all those foodie travel shows: a bite of food will bring us back to a time and place from our past. Whether it’s your grandma’s homemade pie or your dad’s hand pulled noodles, there’s a certain taste that will transport you to the past. This Thanksgiving, with that one bite of the sweet potato, I remembered those unforgettable winter nights in Beijing and Niigata.
How do you enjoy sweet potatoes? Is there a food that evokes memories for you?