How do I know? Because the winter snacks have arrived!
Seemingly overnight, the number of roast sweet potato 烤地瓜 (Kǎo DìGuā：literally ‘roast ground melon’¹）street vendors have quadrupled.
Your average sweet potato dealer has a certain look: male, accessorized with beat-up leather or canvas jacket and a cool one-hand-on-the-hip-hand-over-the-RMB slouch. Ovens are pretty makeshift, usually what looks like a dusty oil drum, on top of which rest the finished products with more potatoes cooking inside.
Following the lead of my host family, I always ask to the see the inside of the drums before I buy to check they’re not using any nasty fuels. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be looking for (glowing bars with ‘radioactive waste’ stamped on the side?) but I’ll take an expert look and give an authoritative nod before I buy and instantly inhale.
Having eaten many a sweet potato in Taiwan where I was studying last year (I was up to six a day at the height of my addiction), I like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert. In my humble opinion, the perfect sweet potato should be roasted until the juices run out of the end, the inside should be soft but not mushy and the skin should be nice and crispy and separate easily from the flesh. If you can bear to wait a few minutes, let your potato cool slightly in order not burn the skin off the roof of your mouth. An unpleasant experience which I’ve inflicted on myself several times.
One of the joys of eating street food (and any food) in Beijing is the opportunity to eat with the seasons so look forward to more snacks to come.
¹ Typing this, I see that there is even a sweet potato emoji available 🍠