The True Yam is a tuberous root vegetable and is a staple food in many parts of Africa. Despite its importance in African cuisine, it’s often confused with other root vegetables, particularly the sweet potato. This post aims to shed light on the true yam, its culinary uses, and its cultural significance.
Yams are not sweet Potatoes – Let’s clear this once and for all
African yam is an old prestigious staple food that we don’t hesitate to serve guests. It is an important dietary element for the African people.
I know a lot of people confuse yams and sweet potatoes, especially in the United States, ‘yam’ and ‘sweet potato’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. True yams are not sweet potatoes. They are two different root crops, and they are not related at all. I grew up in Nigeria eating true yam, and I think I can share some of my knowledge with you. Let’s go!
The true yam, a staple in many African, Asian, and Caribbean diets, is frequently mistaken for the entirely different sweet potato. This common misunderstanding is not just a case of mistaken identity in the produce aisle; it runs deeper, tracing its roots back to the times of transatlantic slavery.
When West Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas, they found a vegetable that was similar to the yams from their homeland—the sweet potato. Out of both familiarity and necessity, they began to cultivate and cook these sweet potatoes, referring to them as “yams” to maintain a cultural connection to their origins.
Let’s talk about the True Yam
The African yam is rich and highly nutritional. It is a cash crop that is available in some areas of Africa all year-round. Unlike some other crops that are seasonal.
Depending on location, it is also popularly referred to as Ghana yam, Nigerian yam, African yam, true yam, white yam, or puna yam.
Important note: I will be using these names interchangeably in this article, considering that they refer to the same yam.
Another beautiful thing about the African yam is its diverse uses, great beneficial health benefits, high availability rate, and how it can complement different sauces.
To balance African yam’s protein deficiency, it is usually complemented with protein-rich meals like egg sauce or fish sauce.
What is True Yam?
Yams are mostly tropical species. They are big-looking roots, with rough wrinkly, dark, and sometimes hairy skin and white to slightly yellow or cream-colored starchy flesh, and they can grow so big. Really enormous!
It belongs to the group Dioscorea, which has about 600 species. Out of these 600 species, about 60 (some say 150) are edible, and about 10 are major food crops.
The family of the true yam I’m talking about today is classified botanically as Dioscorea rotundata. It is grown in a specific fertile land region in some parts of the world like Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire.
Like potatoes, African yams can be fried, mashed, boiled, pounded, and much more.
Differences between sweet potatoes and True Yams
- Like I said earlier, yams are entirely different from Sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes sprawl in the ground while yams are big climbing vines.
- True yams have a mild earthy taste and are more starchy, while sweet potatoes are sweet.
- True yams are way bigger than sweet potatoes.
- The sweet potato is a New World plant from the Convolvulaceae family. It has a smoother skin and the flesh can be white, orange, or even purple while yams have thicker skin, almost like cassava (Yuca).
Flavor Profile | Texture of African Yam
True Yams taste almost like potatoes, but they have a bit more texture to them.
Size of Puna Yam
They have different size ranges, from the size of a small potato to a bigger size up to hundreds of pounds, and they can be over one meter in length. The yam tubers are thick, of more length than width, and have a cylinder shape.
Color of Ghana Yam ( Nigerian Yam)
The skin color is brown, and the outer part is rough, tough, scaly, and difficult to peel, but it is softened with heating. Inside the thick layer is the edible part, which is white to cream-colored. It’s dry and starchy. When cooked, it has a subtle sweetness with a mild, earthy flavor.
Temperature to store the African Yam
Yams should be stored in a cool, dry place (free from heat and moisture). The best temperature with which to store African yams is between 14°C and 16°C. Any temperature below 12°C causes damage to the yam and leaving it susceptible to decay.
Yams are perishable however, they are not meant to be stored in the refrigerator. It may lead to chilling damage and when returned back to normal temperature, it will break down rapidly causing the tuber to smell. The maximum storage life of D. rotundata tubers is about 4 months in a cool and dry place.
Nutritional Composition of African Yam
African yam is rich in Carbohydrates, vitamins A, B6, and C, Thiamine, fiber, potassium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and copper.
Where to buy True Yam
African Yams are not readily available in local grocery stores but you can easily get them online and in the African/Caribbean markets.
I’m leery of how fresh the online yams are so I prefer to buy them at my local African store. However, I believe there are some trusted vendors that sell good yams. Be sure to read reviews and do your research before buying online.
Yam Recipes | Ways Yam Can Be Used | Culinary Uses
The African yam can be prepared, used, and eaten in different ways or styles. Here are some of them;
- Boiled Yam: It can be sliced and boiled and served with sauce or egg sauce.
- Roasted Yam: It can be roasted on an open fire or the bbq grill.
- Yam fritters: The starchy tubers can be made into fritters. It can also be mashed, formed into cakes, and fried.
- Pounded Yam: It can be pounded with a traditional mortar and pestle, after properly boiled, into a thick starchy paste widely known as the traditional pounded yam, locally called ‘Iyan’ or Fufu. It is eaten with traditional sauces and soups according to the eater’s preferences. Note: fufu can also be made from other starchy foods, such as cassava, plantains, and cocoyams.
- Amala (swallow food): It can also be consumed by leaving the pieces of yam out to dry or sun/heat dried and then milled to become a brown powdered flour ‘Elubo’ as known in Nigeria but commonly known as Yam flour. It is used to prepare a thick starchy paste known as Amala, which can be eaten with different local sauces and soups.
- Yam chips, fries, and Wedges: Yams can be cut into wedges, stips, or thinly sliced; seasonings are added, then fried to be made into yam fries or cooked in the style of potato chips or french fries.
- Yam porridge: Sauced, seasoned, and mashed yam. So delicious!
- Other ways it can be prepared include Yam hash, Cheesy yam gratin, added into baked goods, etc.
Health Benefits of True Yam
African yam can benefit your health in a lot of ways. A few of the benefits are stated below;
- It contains a lot of nutritional composition, e.g., carbohydrates, calories, protein, carbs, vitamins, Magnesium, Manganese, potassium, thiamine, copper, etc. This helps support growth, body metabolism, the heart’s functioning, efficient red blood cell production, boosting the immune system, bones’ health, etc.
- Enhances the functioning of the brain. Yam contains a unique compound, diosgenin which enhances brain function and improves learning abilities.
- It helps reduce inflammation due to its antioxidant properties.
- It helps improve blood sugar control due to its dietary fiber contents and resistant starch, which helps increase the digestive enzymes that break down food.
These are claims. Please do your own research to be sure of these benefits 🙂
Advantages and disadvantages of African Yam
- It has a long storage/shelf life.
- It can be used in a wide variety of cooking applications.
- It is easy to cook.
- It can be used in soups or stews for a starchy addition or mashed and added as a thickener.
- It has a high nutrient composition.
- It must be properly peeled and cooked before consumption. Raw yam is toxic and can cause illness if not well cooked and peeled.
- If not properly stored, it can decay. It’s a perishable product.
- The skin can feel itchy when it comes in contact with the skin, especially new yam (first harvest). You can apply palm oil to the spot to relieve the itchiness.
- 100 grams of yam is about 118 calories, so it is recommended that yam should be consumed moderately as it is very high in calories.
I hope you enjoyed knowing more about the true yam. I’m social and you can connect with me on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. I love keeping in touch with you, and nothing brings me more joy than seeing pictures of your creations.