Yomitan farmer's market statue of a potato

Behold… the potatoes of Okinawa!

Everywhere I go in Okinawa there seems to be a lot of love for the humble potato. I’ve seen it as giant statues on the street, ready-cooked snacks in Lawson and a favourite flavour of ice-cream. So why does Okinawa love the potato so much?

The potato saved Okinawa! The island’s subtropical climate made the country’s favourite starch, rice, very difficult to grow. So the potato was introduced as a necessity and has got its people through some hard times, including pre and post WWII famine.

Thank you potato!

Here are three types of potato that have blown my mind in Okinawa so far.

The purple Okinawan potato “beni imo”

Yomitan farmer's market statue of a potato
A statue of a purple potato at Yomitan’s farmer’s market (c) Rianne Mason

Probably the most famous of Okinawa’s potatoes is the purple potato, or “beni imo”. It happens to grow in Yomitan, which is why I saw a huge statue of it when I went to their farmer’s market recently.

This purple potato is not only very sweet, making it perfect for pancakes, tarts and other desserts, it’s also known as a superfood. The purple colour comes from the same stuff that’s in blueberries and red cabbage and the potato is packed with Vitamin A and Vitamin C.

So if you’re going to opt for just one strange potato in your life (and why would you), then I’d reach for the purple one. The Hawaiins have embraced it so you’ll be in good company, mahalo!

Omoimo potato van
The Omoimo wagon inside a mall, selling tarts, pies and other treats (c) Rianne Mason

The yellow sweet potato

Kadena statue of a potato
A statue of a sweet potato in Kadena (c) Rianne Mason

Head over to Kadena and you’ll find sweet potatoes everywhere. I asked why there seems to be a particularly special love of the potato in this town and it turns out that it’s their mascot.

Kadena even had a festival that honours the ‘father of the sweet potato’, and so it all becomes clear…

Noguni Sokan, a government official from Noguni Village (part of present-day Kadena Town), is credited with bringing and cultivating sweet potatoes from Fujian of Ming (present-day China).
Sweet History: The tale behind Japan’s favorite potato

The islanders soon figured out that this crop thrives in their climate and they could harvest the delicious source of starch every 5-6 months. It became a life saver in times of famine and so the person who bought it here is rightly heralded as a bit of a hero.

The Okinawan Mountain potato/Japanese mountain yam

An Okinawa mountain potato at Yomitan farmer's market
My sister and I at Yomitan’s farmer’s market holding the biggest potato I’ve ever seen! (c) Rianne Mason

When I first saw this potato at Yomitan’s farmers’ market my jaw dropped. It. Is. Huge.

But when I tried to find information about this beast of a tuber I really struggled. Was I searching for the wrong thing? My sister, who has lived here for over 20 years, came to the rescue.

This is actually Yamaimo root, which vary in shape and appearance. Once I knew what to search for all kinds of interesting facts came up, including the belief that this long root is an aphrodisiac. I wonder where they got that idea.

Yamaimo roots are rare Asian tubers belonging to the Dioscoreaceae family. They grow below ground, producing climbing vines above ground, and are an Asian species valued for their starchy, sticky flesh. The name Yamaimo was derived from the Japanese words “yama,” meaning “mountain,” and “imo,” meaning “potato,” a descriptor used for the root’s native growing region.
Yamaimo Root

So now we know. This starchy root is perfect for okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), spongy cakes and noodles. It’s also okay to eat raw, which is unusual for an edible tuber (cassava and taro have to be boiled).

Wow, what a journey! I will never look at a potato in the same way again.

Learn more about potatoes in Okinawa

There’s so much more to say about potatoes in Okinawa. Here are a few interesting articles I found in my research.

Ube vs Taro vs Ben Imo

Okinawan Cuisine: How Sweet Potatoes Came to Be a Staple Food for Centenarians

Kadena festival honors ‘Father of the Sweet Potato’

Yamaimo: 3 Common Ways to Enjoy Japanese Mountain Yam

Talk to me

Have you got some interesting facts about the Okinawan diet? Do you grow your own Japanese vegetables or have some tasty recipes to share? Please tell me by adding a comment below.

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