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The Tsukune imo is a round massive root that looks as if someone molded it by hand. Its dark brown to gray colored skin is rough and scale like and encases a dense white interior. Its flesh is sticky with a crisp texture and slightly sweet flavor.
Tsukune imo are available from the late fall to early spring months.
The Tsukune imo's common vernacular names are the Yamato imo and the Yama no imo; it is an herbaceous perennial vine and a member of Dioscoreaceae family.
Tsukune imo are rich in the digestive enzyme diastase that can break down carbohydrates and turn them into sugar, which in turn makes them easy to digest. The stickiness of Tsukune imo is caused by the combination of galactic and manna of plant polysaccharides with protein, a reaction that can also help promote cellular metabolism and work as anti-aging agent. Eating Tsukune imo regularly can increase physical strength and help people with lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. Touching the flesh of Tsukune imo may cause an allergic reaction because acicular crystals of calcium oxalate may irritate the skin.
The Tsukune imo can be enjoyed raw or cooked. It is often used as a binder in miso based soups, egg dishes, soba noodles and Japanese Nimono or grated and made into Tororo paste. People in Japan use it when they make a Japanese confectionary known as Wagashi or Okonomiyaki for adding flavor and a soft chewy texture. It can be fried and made into Isobe-age or pan-fried and made into Oyaki. Try to get ones that come with soil, but if not get the heavy ones that have a moist surface with no scratches and a more uniform shape. For storing, wrap them in a newspaper and store in a cool dark place. It is better not to store them in the refrigerator in order to avoid cold damage however if it has been cut already, make sure to wrap it in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. For long term storing, they can also be parboiled and frozen for future use. After peeling the skin, putting them in a bowl of cold water with a splash of vinegar for fifteen minutes can reduce irritation of the skin as well as help preserve the white hue of the flesh.
Tsukune imo are native to Southern China. There are different varieties of Tsukune imo in Japan and they are difficult to identify since they are called a different name in different regions. They are called Tabayama no imo in Kyoto, Kagamaru imo in Ishikawa prefecture and Ise imo in Mie prefecture. The name, Tsukune imo came from its round appearance that looks like a Japanese chicken meatball called Tsukune. Tsukune imo are harvested in Mie prefecture, Nara prefecture and Aomori prefecture.