Friday, January 18, 2008

石焼き芋 - Ishi Yaki Imo

"Yaki imo... yaki imo... ishi yaki imo.." the truck's loudspeaker blares.  A common sight and sound throughout the neighborhoods of Tokyo in winter are the stone roasted sweet potato trucks.  How these little indie operations make any money is up for speculation, but the urban landscape of Tokyo would be lesser for not having them.  

In my neighborhood, there's a guy who stations his rig in Wadabri Koen on a little bridge crossing the Zenpukiji River.  He sleeps in the cab  getting out on rare occasions to sell a spud or two or to stoke the fire that's burning on the bed of the pickup.  Some vendors fire up the tubers with broken furniture (which I suppose is at a premium as folks have already burned them up for New Year at the temples).  Our vendor seems to use the detritus from construction sites - old scraps of treated lumber lending a particularly complex and modern taste to the roasted skins.

The basic theory here are makeshift stoves and a central flue, so the heat remains steady, with a side chamber lined with little stones.  The imo are placed upon on the stones. Indirect heat and long cooking make for particularly sweet and densely textured sweet potato.  They're a bit overpriced.  200 for a small one and up to 600 for a custom supreme, but on a particularly biting day, there's nothing much better than sinking your teeth into a such esculent hypogenic vegetable matter. Well worth it!

The satsuma imo (薩摩芋 - the Japanese sweet potato) are a dense yellow-fleshed potato with rose-colored skin that turns an appealing burgundy color when well roasted. They are somewhat drier than your usual New World sweet potato. Seems they made a circuitous journey to Japan.  They went from the New World to China and then landed in Okinawa  sometime in the early 17th century and then worked themselves up to northern islands.  They are also called kansho (甘薯), ryukyu-imo (琉薯 - after the place they first found themselves in Okinawa), and karaimo (唐薯芋 - Chinese potato).  


七草 - Nanakusa

Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let's get nanakusa.

January 7 is the day to eat nanakusa (七草), the 7 herbs of springtime. 7 for luck. 7 for health. 7 for the ritual of the 7th day. You're supposed to say the above saying as you cut and steam the herbs to add to the simmering rice gruel. It's the beginning of the end of the winter fast. The air is cold. The trees are brown and leafless, yet somewhere (perhaps at the huge seasonal displays in the vegetable sections of every supermarket) you are to find the first of the year's herbs and vegetables. Turnips (すずな) and daikon (すずしろ), for sure. They keep long and hardy under the blanket of earth even as the air around grows cold. They're a staple of the Japanese diet because they last through the short, but brutal winter. Then there's the water dropwort (せり), the shepherd's purse (なずな), the cudweed (ごぎょ), the chickweed (はこべら), and the nipplewort (ほとけのざ) - hardy survivors of the winter, straggly, moderately edible, delicious for their bursts of chlorophyl on taste buds numbed by a meagre diet of  roots and rice. 
And then there's the myth, or is it the empirical wisdom of centuries, that gives the herbs and vegetables healing powers - shepherd's purse for clear vision,  cudweed for nausea and fevers, chickweed for being regular, dropwort (or Japanese parsley) for digestion, nipplewort for toothaches, daikon to stop neuralgia and whooping cough, and turnips to promote good digestion (and with willful mistranslations from the online translator - it's also good for burning servants and freckles).
The days are getting longer though there's a chill in the air. Nanakusa reminds us that it will soon break and the promise of springtime is not far.