When I was asked to do a review of Japan’s seasonal conbini (convenience store) snacks for autumn 2021, the first thing that struck me was “responsibility.” Conbini and seasonal snacks — probably two of the most Japanese elements of the country you could think of. How can I conduct a serious taste test to ensure I properly present the symbols of Japan to you for your lunch break snacking?
Before stepping into the FamilyMart near my apartment, I could already tell from the orange and purple poster: it’s sweet potato season.
Sweet potatoes, also known as satsuma-imo (さつまいも) in Japanese, are an autumn vegetable not native to Satsuma (nowadays Kagoshima). In fact, it’s a vegetable local to Central and South America. The Europeans took it back home and exported it to Africa, India and China. Eventually, this potato landed in southern Japan. This little rooty sweetie then thrived in Satsuma and got its name there. Nowadays, digging sweet potatoes in autumn is a popular outdoor activity in Japan. I dig some potato digging of my own, not in the fields but in the conbini shelves.
Indeed, it was a deep dig because two Lawsons might stock different sweet potato snacks even though they are only 100 meters away from each other. Therefore, I can’t guarantee you will be able to find every single product I mentioned in this article at the conbinis in your area, but that’s also where the fun is. Go dig!
The taste test
Ever since I came to Japan, I have wondered why Japan has so many seasonal, regional limited editions of almost everything.
These sweet potato cakes, buns, donuts, chips, pies, chocolate… Why do they all have to be “a one-season wonder”? Is this the realization of the ideology of Shun, the peak of seasonal Japanese ingredients, the essence of quatre saisons of this island? Is this how Japanese people pay respect to nature as they cherish the seasonal produce mother earth has gratefully given upon?
Now, the answer is right in my mouth.
As the sweet potato and honey syrup inside the chocolate bursted over my tastebuds, I realized this was a bit far from what I expected. Not the celebration of autumn nor the spiritual connection with our mother earth.
If sweet potatoes have a vegan version, this is probably it.”
I kept digging but the excessive amounts of sugar and artificial flavoring in many of these products were simply disappointing.
This taste test definitely didn’t start off well. Yet fortunately, I found several I dig very much.
Snack highlight #1: サクサク芋けんぴ (crispy sweet potato fries)
The top of my list is this サクサク芋けんぴ (crispy sweet potato fries), made from real sweet potatoes. Though it does have some added sugar, it’s not overpowering. The added salt further draws out the natural sweetness. The size and thickness also ensure the sticks are crispy inside out. If you prefer crunchy texture, this is for you.
Snack highlight #2: Dried sweet potato (干し芋)
For those who enjoys the chewy ones, I would recommend these dried sweet potato (干し芋) with no added sugar. Not too much difference in the taste but they come in different shapes: slices, sticks and blocks. I kept coming back to the salted one but this is more of my personal preference.
Interestingly, these dried ones are available all year round.
I have to say for most of these seasonal snacks, I could only taste the “sweet” not the “potato” and I would be lying if I recommended you get them for how they taste. We probably all can agree that these seasonal limits are just marketing strategies or maybe even call it a capitalism pitfall. But who is to stop us from getting some for fun?
Snack highlight #3: Seaweed flavored sweet potato
For example, this sweet potato flavored seaweed. I still can’t really comprehend how this combination works but it is worth a mention for the creativity.
Snack highlight #4: These sweet potato wannabes
Look at these sweet potato wannabes. I’ll have to give them that for the orange and purple camouflage.
I highly recommend getting them as references for your next package design project.
Or as props to practice your plating skills;
Or use the leftovers as an excuse to bond with your friends over picnics. I promise these won’t make you fart.
Though it was enough fun as a taste test, consuming so many sweet potato snacks does make me miss the real sweet potatoes.
So I went out digging again, this time for the real one.
It was a typical autumn night in Tokyo.
The baked sweet potato was warm in my hands.
I took a deep breath and a big bite.
This is what I have been missing.
*Bonus snacks: To the chestnuts…
During my sweet potato digging, I also found a lot of chestnut snacks. Though I can’t really say I enjoyed them for their taste either, I would like to give them a shoutout for their symbolic value of Japanese autumn.
And a huge thank you for their cooperation as my plating practice props.