You say Potato, I say Ben-imo

If there’s one thing I really like to write about, it’s food. Whether it’s a restaurant I’ve discovered, or some exotic cuisine I’ve never tasted before, I think my decades of eating, enjoying, and even being picky (I prefer the term “particular”) about what I eat help me write somewhat informed food and restaurant reviews.

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Why won’t they ever listen to us, Snowflake?

Most of my work as a food critic can be found at Total Okinawa, and a post here and there and a few other places on Okinawa Hai. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m no food critic! I’ve just convinced some people to pay me to dine out and write about it!

acc to plan

Next step: I get paid to sleep!

So it’s high time we talk about some Okinawan food here on little okinawa. To start us off: we dig into Okinawan sweet potatoes. The most famous one, of course, is ben-imo, the Okinawan purple sweet potato:

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Some purple rain fell on these potatoes, and the rest is history. Ok, no, but it’s a lovely origin story, don’t you think? If it were true, maybe I’d find some redeeming quality in Prince’s super sappy ballad.

The secret to a long life?

Ben-imo is touted as a “superfood” in The Okinawa Program book (a book that makes wild promises to help you live a really long life, if you just eat & do like the Okinawans), no doubt because it’s rich in anthocyanin, an antioxidant that gives it and other purple foods (like eggplant and purple cabbage) their deep color. My favorite color, in fact!

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I got about 1/3 through this book, then got bored and skimmed the rest. Here are the “CliffsNotes”: For a long and happy life, eat lots of vegetables like ben-imo and goya (bitter melon), plus fish, ginger, fruit, and green tea, and get out in the sunshine, stay active, and be social and hang out with friends. I just saved you at least 5 hours, maybe 10. Your life is longer already!

More importantly, anthocyanin protects against cell damage and free radicals, which can help prevent cancer, as well as heart disease and age-related brain problems. Or so this article on Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong website says. I know, he hasn’t exactly been considered the bastion of truth these days. But the article does cite the info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is a bit more reliable.

cite all your sources

or I will paint you! Pee yellow!

 Fifty ways to eat Ben-imo–Such a good Paul Simon song

Ben-imo can be cooked the same ways as any other sweet potato, or potato (though it’s not really related to the potato, or the yam, for that matter). I’ve steamed and peeled them, and mashed the soft ones and sliced the firmer ones:

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Yes, I made this delicious, colorful, well-balanced dish about a year back. And then took the photo. I know, you can tell I was trying to do some food styling. Taking the picture with my iPhone sort of defeats the purpose, though, doesn’t it?

Ben-imo tastes different than the more familiar orange and yellow sweet potatoes. It has a bit of a flowery aftertaste. A slight tang. I like it; others can’t get used to it.

My all-time fave place to go to taste samples (lots and lots of samples!) of Okinawan treats is the Purple Sweet Potato Factory in Yomitan (there’s at least one more in  the southern part of the island, too, I believe in Naha). I like to have lunch at the restaurant behind the factory/gift shop first, for their purple potato noodles with savory sauce:

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In Japan, it’s bad luck to “cut” the noodles off with your teeth, like we do with spaghetti if our mouths are already full of noodles. The noodles represent long life, so splitting them with your teeth is like cutting your life short. This means I either have to eat two noodles at a time, or I was supposed to die last week.

The noodles are served cold, which sounds weird but is really refreshing, especially on a hot Okinawan day. There’s only the smallest hint of ben-imo flavor in the noodles–quite subtle. The dish is topped with thin strips of seaweed and salty sea grapes. It also comes with two sauces–one creamy and one like a light soy or miso. You can dip the noodles in each sauce, or mix the sauces together and dump them on top. I like to order more sea grapes, to even out my noodle-to-sea-grape bite ratio. Yes, that sounded totally nerdy. I don’t mind–I told you I was particular!

Other things made with ben-imo found throughout Okinawa:

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Assorted cookies

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What on earth are those little things at the bottom, you ask? Well, those are tapioca “pearls,” little, slightly sweet spheres that you suck up a huge straw and chew on, like candy. This Asian drink is also known as “boba” or “bubble tea,” and I love it. I am surprised (though I shouldn’t be) when I let other people try it and they hate it. It IS different.

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Ben-imo Okinawan doughnuts. Okinawan doughnuts are not all that sweet, and can be kind of hard and chewy if you don’t get them fresh.

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A smorgasbord of ben-imo treats in a gift box, including the boat-shaped ben imo tart in the middle, probably the most iconic of Okinawan ben-imo treats. I’m just now realizing from this bird’s eye view–is it made to look like the shape of the actual sweet potato? Hmm. . .

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Ever go to a Chinatown in a big city and see those big, crispy, layered, sugary butterfly shaped cookies? This looks like a mini version of those, with a layer of purple potato.

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These are chinsukou–another popular Okinawan treat. They’re buttery shortbread cookies, which come in different flavors (including really awful spicy ones!). They’re one of my favorite Okinawan treats, and if for some reason I’d need to put on a lot of weight (ha! A girl can dream, right?!), these would be near the top of my list!

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I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but there’s ben-imo involved, and a milky substance of some type. Is it mochi? Yogurt? Sweet cream? Octopus ball? Oh, if only there were samples. . . but then, maybe NO ONE would buy them!

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This is probably my favorite ben-imo treat of all time: the soft serve ice cream at Blue Seal creamery:

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Since the potato flavor is really strong, I go for the ben-imo and vanilla mix. And, I just noticed that the cake cone is totes Okinawan:

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Even if it tastes like styrofoam.

And who can resist this ridiculously fun photo op:

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I think I make a pretty convincing dwarf dressed like a giant ben-imo tart. Who knew?

Here’s me at the Purple Sweet Potato Factory, eyeballing all the treats:

The mysterious singing sweet potato truck

But I would be remiss if didn’t talk about the singing sweet potato truck. In fact, it’s what inspired this post in the first place.

The singing sweet potato truck makes the rounds in my Okinawa City neighborhood every Saturday afternoon. However, it took me months and comparing notes with friends to crack the code of what exactly I was hearing–I thought maybe an Okinawan neighbor was practicing for some traditional concert! I had no idea it was a truck, or that it sold anything, let alone sweet potatoes. It could have been a ghost serenading me in the daytime, for all I knew.

I’m not even sure that the song has lyrics, it’s so garbled. But I’ll never forget the tune.

These suckers are piping HOT. So hot, in fact, that like a big galoot, I left them on my dining room table for them to cool, and left this regretful mark:

The white smears, that is. The other little mark is from when I was using nail polish remover at the table--another bonehead moment!

The white smears/burn marks are from the fiery-hot bag of potatoes. The other light mark is from when I was using nail polish remover at the table–another moment in which “I couldn’t brain–I had the dumb.”

The smoker on the back of the singing truck also caramelizes the sweet potatoes–they’re a bit sticky to handle. I have to say, these babies are the sweetest sweet potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Maybe I should just start calling them “sweetest potatoes.” There’s absolutely no need for additional brown sugar or marshmallows (and this from someone with a recovering sweet tooth)–they’re already dessert-y.

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Smoked sweet potato–street food du jour.

Even though I know I can count on hearing the singing sweet potato truck every Saturday, it remains elusive–I have to listen for the song and walk around a bit to find it, and I still don’t know where the song come from or what it’s all about!

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Nature’s candy.

This unique cultural tidbit is burned into my memory, and if in the future I ever come across someone who has also lived here, I’m sure to ask: “Did you ever hear the singing sweet potato truck?!” Followed of course, by my own rendition of what its sounded like.

Have you tried ben-imo before? In what form (steamed, boiled, as ice cream, etc.)? Yay or nay?

What’s your favorite way to eat sweet potatoes?