Stone-roasted Sweet Potatoes

Feb 10, 2015, By: Audrey

Neighbor: In America, do you have trucks that drive around residential neighborhoods selling hot stone-roasted sweet potatoes?

Me: No, but in the summer we have trucks that sell ice cream treats.

Neighbor: Ice cream? From a truck? That’s weird.

This recent cultural exchange is brought to you on the occasion of a fun seasonal culinary happening. During cold months, small pick-up trucks selling freshly roasted whole sweet potatoes crawl through residential neighborhoods, blaring a traditional chant-call from roof-mounted speakers.

One day this week after Gus got home from kindergarten, the four of us lingered outside, enjoying a little warmth from the afternoon sun. Our neighbor and her daughter (a year younger than Gus) came out, too, and the kids were frolicking in the street. Suddenly the unmistakeable and haunting call of the Sweet Potato Truck began to echo around us.

Evan leapt into action, tossing aside his gardening gloves (he had been uprooting last summer’s dead flowers) and springing into the house for some money. He bounded around the corner and found the Truck about a block away. This vendor had three varieties of sweet potatoes, all being roasted on live coals in an after-market fire pit mounted in the bed of the pick-up. He weighed out and sold us one of each and packed them in a humble brown paper sack.

The chant-call continued to play while we were making the transaction. I guess I had hoped that the driver or his assistant was actually singing into a microphone as they drove around. A taped call is somewhat less enchanting, but more pragmatic, I suppose.

Prized potatoes in hand, Evan rounded up the kids while I grabbed a paper plate and utensils from inside. Then Gus, Elsa, the neighbor-girl, and I picnicked on our front steps, noshing on roasted sweet potatoes together. They were delicious, and fun to share, too.

This is the second time we’ve bought roasted sweet potatoes from a truck. They’re a bit expensive (about US$9 for those three potatoes), so not an everyday snack. The first time we had them, we had just moved to Sapporo. The winter was harsh, we were new in the country, and language study had maxed out our mental capacity. One evening after 11-month-old Gus had finally gone to bed, I heard the call. I didn’t know what it was; I knew only that if it woke up my baby, someone would have to answer for it.

Knowing more about Japanese culture than I did, Evan said, “I think that’s the potato truck!” We hemmed and hawed for a minute or two, and then decided we definitely needed this kind of treat to lift our spirits. But the truck was almost gone! We shoved our feet into shoes as fast as we could and skidded out of our apartment building and down the snow-packed sidewalk toward the escaping truck. He must have seen us coming because he stopped and started to back up.

In spite of our utter lack of Japanese skills at the time, we managed to buy a couple hot potatoes. As we stood in the street holding the steaming spuds, we suddenly realized we had left Gus completely alone in our first-floor apartment. Oops! We quickly made our way back home, managed to get inside without waking the boy, and sat down to enjoy our snack. I’ve tried making baked sweet potatoes at home, but they never turn out quite like the ones from the trucks.

Neither snow nor child-abandonment were part of this week’s roasted sweet potato episode. Just a Japanese treat enjoyed among neighborhood friends.

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