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?