There is a lot of confusion about sweet potatoes and yams because the terms are used interchangeably. Most people of Caribbean descent enjoy eating a nice piece of freshly cooked yam as a side dish. It doesn’t matter whether it is white yam or yellow yam, just so long as it is a good piece of yam.
We’re not talking about the yams or sweet potatoes that many of us eat at Thanksgiving. These are yams, also known name in most supermarkets.
Just to give you an idea as to what a Caribbean or African yam looks like, here is corny joke. A Jamerican — a Jamaican born in America — picked up a piece of name in the supermarket and said, “Do people eat this? It looks like a piece of wood.”
It is shaped like a really long sweet potato but can grow up to 132 pounds in size. The skin is rough and bark-like and comes in light brown, dark brown or tan in color. The flesh of name — or yam in the Caribbean — is creamy and white or yellow in color when cooked. The flavor can be described as nutty, very similar to a potato. Yams can be baked, boiled, steamed, roasted, scalloped, fried or creamed. Both the American yams and the Caribbean yams are of the “tuber” family.
The mix-up with the yam and sweet potatoes came about when African slaves were brought to the United States and they referred to the potato as a “nyami,” which is an African word for yam in English. Later on when the lighter-skinned sweet potato was introduced, producers labeled them as yam to differentiate from the existing sweet potato. Hence, the confusion.
An online article from the National Library of Jamaica says yams were brought to Jamaica from Africa on slave ships and eventually became a staple part of the local diet. When the slaves were being transported, yams were one of the foods that sustained those who survived.
The article also states that there are many varieties of yams that are indigenous to the islands. However the fact remains that the more popular varieties came from Africa, where they grow up to 600 varieties.
“I was raised eating yams” said Jan Blackson a Philadelphia resident. “As a child back in the islands, I felt like this was the only starch my mom ever prepared.
“I had it boiled, fried, steamed and even mashed.” “I got so tired of eating yams, I made a promise to myself that I when I became an adult, yams would never be a part of my diet,” she recalled. “I lived up to that promise for many years.
“When I immigrated to the United States about 10 years later, I realize that yams were a much healthier option that eating a bunch of processed side dishes,” Blackson added.
Yams are prepared in many different ways all over the Caribbean. For instance, in Barbados yams are often peeled cut in cubes and then boiled until soft. It is then mashed with milk and butter. This dish must be eaten while it is hot since the yam hardens when it is cold.
In Trinidad & Tobago yam is also served mashed. The kush kush yams are peeled cut and boiled. A chopped onion, scotch bonnet pepper, parsley, salt and black pepper are sautéed with olive oil in a saucepan on low heat for approximately 6 to 8 minutes. The boiled yams are stirred into the mixture and then its ready to serve.
According to several online articles, yams — not sweet potatoes — are a staple food in Africa. Not only is it cooked in its natural form but it is also made into flour and can be found in various African grocery stores. It is an especially good source of food for people in Third World countries who do not have a refrigerator because they have a long shelf life.
I remember my father planted yams when we lived on the islands and he could harvest the yam by digging a part of it out of the ground, cutting a section that he needed and reburying the remaining part to be harvested later.
Sweet potatoes have less calories than yams. They contain more Vitamin C and three times the amount of beta-carotene, but there are good pluses to yams also. They contain more potassium and manganese, which contributes to good strong bones, a healthy heart, good growth and good metabolism.
Like many foods that came out of our forefather’s resourcefulness, yams continues to be a great form of sustenance today that is available to us regardless of what continent we live on.