You know the theme song from the tv show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, “Whoooooo Are You? Who, who, who, who?” That’s how I feel about sweet potatoes…yams…sweet potato yams…WHO ARE YOU? Am I the only one that found these tasty vegetables confusing? ????????♀️
Here’s the deal. I’ve eaten sweet potatoes/yams all my life or so I thought I was eating yams. When in pie form it was a sweet potato pie. If it was baked, it was a baked sweet potato. If it was candied, it was candied yams. Well…
I remember the first time I was left to my own devices and went to the grocery store to buy “yams”. I was a bit perplexed. I saw three different signs: sweet potatoes, garnet yams, and Japanese sweet potatoes. Which sweet potato/yam had my Granny and mom been cooking all these years?
First I bought this one…
The Japanese sweet potato. I figured it’s dark purplish skin color must mean it has that orange flesh. I was wrong. Instead, it had cream-colored flesh and is a bit starchy and dry. Here’s a recipe from Epicurious if you would like to give it a go.
Next, I purchased this one, the white sweet potato but at that time I didn’t know it was white.
It looked different. It had somewhat golden-colored skin and white flesh. This wasn’t what I was used to seeing but I was going with it since it said “sweet potato”. The white sweet potato has a much milder sweet flavor and can go well with sweet or savory dishes. While it was tasty, it wasn’t the one I grew up eating. Here’s a recipe from The Spruce Eats for mashed white sweet potatoes.
Last I bought that garnet yam. This had to be the right one. Right?
Alas, I had the right one! It was the pie, candied, and baked sweet orange-fleshed potato/yam I had been searching for but what I learned is that I really wasn’t eating a yam. MIND BLOWN!!!
There is so much history behind the sweet potato and yam. In America, that orange-fleshed creamy root vegetable we so readily call a yam is, in fact, not a yam but a sweet potato. Are you confused yet?
Here’s the real YAM!
Yams and sweet potatoes are completely different vegetables. While yams are tubers, sweet potatoes are a root vegetable. The varieties that we see in American grocery stores are all sweet potatoes, even if the sign says yam. It’s actually very rare that you will find yams in American grocery stores. If you’re looking for yams you will likely find them at a local African, Asian, or Caribbean store.
Yams are an important part of West African food traditions and the yam and sweet potato mix up in America can be traced to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. To learn more, please check out Food and Wine’s article The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes is Structural Racism.
Ok! Now that we know the difference between a sweet potato and a yam, let’s get to the business of cooking up some spicy sweet potatoes. Click for my Spicy Sweet Potatoes & Onions.
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