Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

Singapore’s Kaya Toast

Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise.  That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate.  That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City.  The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade.  The second?  Kaya jam and toast.

Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan,  a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes.  The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used.  I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes.  It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.

Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast.  With butter.

What’s that…coconut and butter?  Well, just take a look:

The layer of butter is almost thicker than a slice of bread

Singapore makes it easy for you.  There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight.  As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits.  You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars?  No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.

Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:

Seems (US) state fair-worthy

If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it?  Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.

Bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦), A Supersweet Chinese Treat

Bingtanghulu at Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing, China

China’s 冰糖葫芦 bīng​táng​hú​lu are what you offer to someone who has grown tired of having teeth.  I suppose you could say it’s China’s version of Coca-Cola.  Basically, a skewer of bingtanghulu is a blanket of sugar around pieces of fruit.

This street food is more popular in northern China in the winter months, though I have spotted it at touristy markets during the summer, too.  Since bingtanghulu is a snack in the mainland, pretty much any fruit (botanically or not) is at risk of becoming impaled on the bamboo stick.  Thus, cherry tomatoes, plums, melon, kumquat, bananas, strawberries, haw, smoked duck necks – most of those, anyhow – will do.  Here are an English recipe and a Chinese recipe for your indulgent pleasures.

Have you tried bingtanghulu?  Would you compare it to coating baklava with a layer of spun sugar?


Chinese Lesson
冰 bīng “ice”
糖 táng “sugar”
葫芦 húlu “calabash/bottle gourd”

Chinese Desserts: Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines.  However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.


Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

Two years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in México.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where have you tried your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!