It’s 3:50 a.m. and I’m awake, looking at pictures of sweet potatoes on Instagram. I like to sleep with the big window above my bed open so fresh air circulates all night, but lately that’s impossible as noxious smoke and wildfires consume California. The smell wakes me many nights, and there’s no point trying to go back to sleep before my overworked air purifier has had a full hour to pull the worst of it out of my bedroom. Until then, I lie in bed and scroll past photo after glorious photo of steaming, pillowy, ready-to-be-devoured Japanese sweet potatoes. I’ve stumbled into the depths of autumnal Japan Instagram, and I want to stay here forever.
Two weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you one thing about autumn in Japan, having only spent a half-day there years ago during a layover from Korea to San Francisco. My entree into this sun-soaked, warmly spiced corner of Instagram came by way of my passionate love affair with the Japanese sweet potato — the yellow-fleshed, sweet-as-candy satsuma-imo. It is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect food. Unlike the stringier, watery orange sweet potatoes many Americans are more familiar with, the satsuma-imo is dense and becomes wonderfully custardy when cooked. As these potatoes bake, they perfume the air with a rich, almost floral aroma.
I woke up before dawn during a recent and particularly smoky night last week, and after latching my window and turning up my air purifier, I typed “satsuma-imo” into Instagram’s hashtag search bar, very hungry and wondering what would come up. The photos filled my feed: hundreds of thousands of preparations for this perfect food, which I had only ever thought to steam or bake or maybe chop up and roast in cubes.
There were tall parfait glasses layered with sweet potato cereal, fluffy sweet potato cream, candied sweet potato, and sweet potato caramel. Perfect cubes of sweet potato simmered alongside chestnuts and sticky pearls of white rice in big clay vessels. Chunks of sweet potato lacquered in a thin film of sugar and coated in black sesame seeds. Alternating layers of sweet potato and adzuki paste robed in thin mochi blankets. Entire Instagram accounts operated by store owners who only sell treats made with the yellow-flesh sweet potato. And satsuma-imo wholesale accounts where disembodied and gloved hands ripped open steaming-hot baked sweet potatoes in video after video, showing off their superior harvests.
You will find admittedly less exciting photos of these sweet potatoes, which I eat every day — sometimes with every meal — on my own Instagram feed, too. You will, on a visit to my home, be welcomed by an enormous Oprah’s garden bounty-sized cornucopia of the purple-skinned sweet potatoes on my counter in place of a more conventional centerpiece. (Who needs a bouquet of flowers or an expensive sculpture when you have these??). When I cook for a boyfriend for the first time, a sliced-in-half and slowly baked sweet potato is always on the table. I cook and eat them when I’m stressed; I bake and steam them by the half-dozen so they’re readily available throughout the week. I have six in my fridge right now. For my birthday two years ago, my brother baked me a Japanese sweet potato cake (subbing the potato into a carrot cake recipe), my age spelled out in slices of baked sweet potato — and I cried. This extremely simple food, which evokes such fond memories, is also just really damn tasty.
I now track about 30 hashtags on Instagram, all of them in Japanese. I don’t know what any of them say, but each one introduces me to a new corner of sweet potato Instagram, which is particularly active as the harvest season gets underway in Japan. Until immersing myself in this corner of the internet, I thought of these sweet potatoes as a very personal pleasure, a food I often cook for others but really prefer to eat alone, savoring every bite. I hadn’t thought much about how I might prepare these sweet potatoes beyond my baking or steaming, or about their importance in a country 5,000 miles away. But these Instagram photos opened my eyes to a world of sweet potato carts, sweet potato parfaits, and sweet potato as sustenance for a nation.
In Japan, like in many places — including some parts of these United States — sweet potatoes have been a staple food for hundreds of years. The tubers were brought to Japan in the late 16th century. And when rice crops failed in the 18th century, sweet potatoes became crucial in the Japanese diet, according to the Japan Times. In the Kanto region — which includes Tokyo — where rice crops were hit particularly hard, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dedicated to the sweet potato still stand.
During the autumn and winter months, vendors in small trucks and carts wend their way through the streets of Tokyo, selling sweet potatoes baked over hot stones. The number of vendors has diminished over the years, but the ones who remain provide warm sweet potatoes to combat the chill of winter, tucked into brown paper bags or wrapped in newspaper. In the last days of January, there is a sweet potato festival — a sweet potato festival!! — in Tokyo. When the potatoes are ready to be pulled from the ground, crowds of families gather in the fields to pick them, much like we take to pumpkin patches. All of this would still be unknown to me if I hadn’t stumbled upon the glorious Japanese sweet potato hashtag on Instagram. Sometimes (very rarely) the internet is just so good.
There’s the hashtag that pulls thousands of photos of sweet potatoes roasted and sliced in half, topped with scoops of ice cream like huge, starchy banana splits, and the one strictly for sweet potato parfaits. Other hashtags gather photos of sweet potato breads and rolls, sweet potato muffins, and sweet potato cakes, the little nuggets of golden potato sticking out of each pastry or baked good like tiny pieces of treasure. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to the craft of baking pastries that look like sweet potatoes, their pastry shells approximating the shape and purple shade of the real thing. Inside, they’re filled with a sweet potato pudding that spills out as the pastries are broken in two — slowly, for effect. Then of course, there are accounts dedicated to the pure magic of dogs eating baked sweet potatoes — I lost track of this hashtag and haven’t been able to find it again, so please DM me if you have details. Starbucks Japan recently introduced a seasonal sweet potato frappuccino! Haagen-Dazs sells a sweet potato tart-flavored ice cream!! Why, cruel world, am I in America?
I don’t know whether my deep appreciation for these tubers is best described as a love affair or an obsession. My boyfriend thinks it’s cute how much I talk about the new-to-me sweet potato dishes that pop up on my Instagram feed as I discover new hashtags and subsets of Sweet Potato Instagram. He’s patient enough to sit next to me as I show him photo after photo after photo. But it’s not like he really wants to spend the bulk of our time together talking about a starchy root vegetable. A clue that perhaps the love affair had veered into obsession came recently, when I ate two enormous sweet potatoes one after the other for dinner, and was up all night with an unbearable stomach ache. As I lay in bed curled up in cramping pain, I sank back into the soft, pillowy comfort of Japanese sweet potato Instagram.