For years, I thought that I could go to my local supermarket and buy yams or sweet potatoes – not that I would have by choice. I have rules about veggies not being sweet and dessert like. You are a vegetable; you should taste serious and let fruit be the happy go lucky, sweet produce. For those of you looking to walk into your local Safeway to purchase an actual yam, you will probably be out of luck. You may be lucky enough to find a bin labelled “yams” next to the different varieties of potatoes (sweet included), the vegetable inside will most likely not be a yam.
Sweet potatoes are a member of the Morning Glory family and are typically categorized into “firm” and “soft” varieties. The firm varieties are lighter skinned with paler flesh and remain firm upon cooking. The “soft” varieties have copper or reddish coloured skins and yellow to orange flesh and become very soft when cooked; lending themselves to mashing and whipping. It is this soft variety of sweet potato that supermarkets will often label as “yams”. There is a historical reason for this. Originally, only the firm varieties of sweet potatoes were commercially produced in the US. When farms began mass producing the soft varieties, they needed to distinguish, for the consumer, between the two varieties.
Yams are from their own, “Yam” family and are native to Asia and Africa – but most are grown commercially in Africa. They are starchier and can range from being the size of an average potato to being the size of a big load of cotton candy that you would buy at the circus. Some weigh over 100 pounds. Yams have rough, scaly skin. Most of the true yams commercially available in the United States are imported from the Caribbean.
Why the confusing nomenclature?
African slaves referred to the soft varieties of sweet potatoes as yams because they resembled the yams in Africa and the name stuck. So; next time your recipe calls for yams, make sure they aren’t actually calling for sweet potatoes. If you are in search of a true yam, try an international supermarket that has a big variety of worldly foods.