But they may not be what you think they are…
Many people are confused about the difference between yams and a sweet potato and it’s easy to see why. When we see them in the grocery store, they look similar. More than that, they are basically interchangeable in recipes. Candied yams can easily become candied sweet potatoes, mashed yams don’t look much different, and they both bake into a delicious potato-like food that you can slather with butter, brown sugar or a bit of maple syrup.
But they are not the same. Not even related. The yam comes from South Africa and Asia and is related to lilies and grasses while the sweet potato is in the morning glory family. Interesting that two very similar vegetables developed in two different plant families. Yams are tropical and sub-tropical and won’t grow if the temperatures are below 65 degrees (F). There are over 150 varieties of yams.
One major difference between yams and sweet potatoes is that yam cannot be eaten raw. They have naturally occurring toxins in the flesh that make them bitter. When they are cooked, the toxins are are removed or neutralized. Having said that, there is one yam that is edible raw and that is the Japanese Yam, but the yam is soaked in a vinegar-water solution to neutralize the irritants found in the skin. Taro is one variety of yam and is often referred to as yam in Asian countries.
Among the other differences, the yams’ flesh color varies from white to purplish or brown, whereas sweet potatoes are orangish. They are also larger tubers with rough dark brown to pink skin compared to the sweet potato’s smaller size and thin peel. And they are starchier and drier.
Yams are a major food crop in Africa and many recipes use them. They are eaten like potatoes with their meals. Their name came from the African word “nYami” meaning “to eat”. Although the yam is grown in many parts of Africa, Nigeria is the largest producer in the world with over 70% of the crop coming from there.
One thing yams and sweet potatoes do have in common, apart from very similar flavor, is that they are both high in carbohydrates, so they are no longer a part of my lifestyle.
Nutrition Information for yams – 1 cup, cubed (150 g)
Calories: 177 Fat: 0.3 g Net Carbs: 36.0 g Protein: 2.3 g
Preparation and Recipes:
The yam can be used in most ways you would use a sweet potato.
It can be boiled, baked, fried or roasted and works in a variety of cuisines.
The most common cooking method in Africa is “pounded yams”. A special dish called Fufu is made during the Yam Festival. Yams are pounded, seasoned slightly then shaped to make a cake which is then eaten with sauces, stews, and soups. This is similar to taro in Hawaii and other South Pacific countries. I tried taro made like this in Hawaii and I wasn’t thrilled with it, although my brother enjoyed it. The key, apparently, is to eat it with a sauce or stew. I’ve often heard mashed taro compared to the taste of library paste. Well, I’ve never tasted that, but taro was pretty bland.
Yams cab be used interchangeably with sweet potatoes in cakes, casseroles, breads, and other dishes. I’ve used yams and find them pretty delicious no matter how you prepare them, but my preference is for sweet potatoes. Partially because of the color, but also because of the texture. But I wonder…? When I bought canned yams, were those really yams or sweet potatoes?
Here are a few recipes from around the web in case you want to get adventurous. But they are all high in carbs, so don’t over-do it if you’re trying to stay on track.
Nigerian Yam and Vegetable with Ukpaka
Ulpaka or ugba is an oil bean seed that is fermented before using. Not sure where you would find them, so possibly just omit.
Spicy African Yam Soup
Penang Yam Cake
Louisiana Yam Cake
Buddhist Yam Delight
Here’s another tip: If you really want to try any of these recipes without the high carbs in yams, substitute in a winter squash, like butternut, pumpkin or acorn. It will work almost as well. Not sure if would hold together on the Fufu though.
Top photo of yams from Wikipedia Commons, used by public permission grant – By Yemisi Ogbe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Mashed yam and rice cake – By Hhaithait (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons