In the wild of wilds, you’re stuck. Between this town and the next town, between the borders of this emperor or that emperor, what does it matter? The same warlords warring over the same land of the same island for generations with little give or gain. Your only reliable choice of transport was a horse, or that stubborn oxen, which while a few coins less, unburdened your pouch beyond bearing. So you turned to your loyal legs, which has never failed since you were but a stout child of a year. And anyhow, the last that you went to relieve your pouch, a delicious ball of onigiri was your reward.
The last bite of that savory, salty, umeboshi hidden within the rice ball, was many lost hours before. Long before the sun had fallen behind the hills, before the twilight tumbled into navy. And here you are now, onigiri-less, breathless, a bit thirsty, with a little bit to worry, for who knows how long that road travels before it reaches the gates of civilization. The fall wind catches your breath on occasion, a cold made colder by the dark. It’s a refreshing breeze, but if bed is to find you out here on the trail, it will be a fitful sleep.
How long do I wait? What am I waiting for? What is any of us ever waiting for? You ponder, sitting on the damp dead log shared by ants and beetles. Even if they hear your plea, perhaps even understanding enough to lend sympathy, they can’t do much to better your circumstance. Perhaps you can eat them?
As deeper darkness takes over and the stars twinkle brightly through the cover of the leafless branches, you sight a faint orange in the distance, like a glowing insect floating your way. Is this your cousin, beetle? Likely not. It moves like a man. Slow and plodding. Afraid of the dark. A light of brigands or salvation, perhaps? Better not chance it. You take cover in the brush with the bugs. And wait. And wait.
The light ringing of a small bell rises on the wind. A temple in the distance. It’s not roving brigands. Just a man alone, perhaps lonely as you this night, tugging his modest cart of burden along, the brassy halo of orange and rings attending. Soon, your nostrils comes alive. It’s the unmistakable air of charred food, a personal delight as a frugal peasant. Is it the oily skin of fish? Is it the bitter innards? No scents of the sea. No. It’s sweet, but not a sweet, lacking the hardiness to survive the rough roads of the country.
Ah, you smile, recognition coming to light. It’s potato, the skin like that of royal linen, somewhere between the purple of sky and the brown of earth, and upon the inside, a flesh like that of gold, a personal treasure from the home province of Satsuma. Mountains. Hills. Plains. Farms. Ocean. History. Mother used to puree it, shape it, bake it. Uncle fermented it, distilled it with frigid mountain waters, poured it into a white ceramic cup, the cycle of a pristine mountain spirit. All a bit much work out here, but fortunately, the best way to have Yakiimo or Ishi Yakiimo, was the simplest. Leave it to smoke in the coals. Let it reach that perfect temperature, piping, where the richness of the starches begin to melt, but not lose its vitamins, its wholesomeness. And indeed, it’s so good, one need only break it in half, watch the constant puff of steam rise. No salt, sugar. Just bite into the core of goodness. A pain, so tender, so good.
You leap out from the darkness, out from the brush.
“Dear heavens!” the old man screams, his straw hat given to the wind with a jolt. “What’re tryin’ ta do? Kill me with fright?”
You bow repeatedly, apologize meekly for your overzealous nostalgia, brushing off the skittering ants up and down your legs. He calms down eventually, after lecturing you on brigands and other troublesome things that creep in the night. You wonder at his own strangeness, of grilling potatoes in the dark, alone upon an empty road, but you try not to offend him. He is kindred, after all. A man enamored by a root. Then the moment comes, and you hope his trove of potatoes are still gooey and steaming on the inside. You take a look.
The lid of the iron pot uncovers. Inside, a heaping mound of potatoes sleep soundly on a still glowing pile of embers. You spot the one with critical eyes in the faintness. The one in the center, on top, an area not too hot, not too cool. You pluck it from the pile.
You juggle it back and forth until it becomes bearable to the touch. The old man gives you a strange look, as if a child who needed the lesson of fire. Then you realize why his quaint stare. You dig into your near empty pouch and fetch another coin. In the faint brassy lamp light, his cold, crumpled face fades into a warm smile.
“You need a ride?” he asks, biting, then pocketing the coin.
You smile back, thinking, it’s going to be warm, and not so lonely this night.
Story by HVH
Recipe of the Day - Sweet Potato Cookies
Ingredients (makes about 2 dozens):
2 large Satsuma sweet potatoes
2 tsp butter
2 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp heavy cream
1 egg yolk
2 tsp honey
6 Tbsp milk
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with parchment papers.
Wash Satsuma sweet potatoes and wrap each with plastic wrap. Microwave them for 7-8 minutes (alternatively, you can bake them in the oven just like baking regular potatoes.)
Peel the skin while the potatoes are still hot. Mash them in a large bowl until very smooth. Add butter and sugar and mix well. Add heavy cream and egg yolk and mix well. Add honey and milk and mix well.
Fit a pastry bag with #22 tip. Fill the pastry bag with the potato mixture. Pipe about 2” disk or however shape you prefer, leaving 2-3” in between cookies. Once the pan is filled with cookies, bake at 350F for about 15 minutes or until they turn golden brown.
Let them cool slightly on a cooling rack. Serve while they are still warm. You can let them cool completely and reheat them again just before serving.