Yam or Sweet Potato?
I Yam What I Yam - Popeye
Is a sweet potato a yam? Grandma made a terrific yam dish every Thanksgiving and my friend Jill makes a beautiful holiday sweet potato dish. They sure do look and taste the same to me, so why is one dish called yam and the other sweet potato? Well, it turns out that yams and sweet potatoes are actually entirely different vegetables. They are grown from plants that are not at all botanically related based on the type of embryonic seed leaf they possess. Yams, called monocots because of their seed type, are native to Africa and Asia, related to lilies and are not the vegetable traditionally eaten at Thanksgiving. No matter what Grandma called her delicious dish, that sweet potato recipe (sweet potatoes are a dicot which is a morning glory relative) did not contain a single yam. It's not even related to the potato!
The USDA created truth in labeling rules for sweet potatoes and now require that the words “sweet potato” be on any package labeled only by custom, yams. According to the Library of Congress, this error of nomenclature on the part of those of us in North America stems from a change in the type of sweet potatoes grown here commercially. When a softer type of sweet potato was introduced to the public market, a new name for the vegetable was needed. The new vegetable looked rather different than the original sweet potato that Columbus reportedly brought with him to America and reminded African slaves of the yams they grew up with. For good or bad, the name yam took root in America and provided many a cook with a lot of confusion in the kitchen. No matter what that sign in the produce section or the label on the can says, most of what we in America call “yams” has never in this world been a true yam.
Deeply colored vegetables generally rock the nutritional charts, and both yams and sweet potatoes hold up to nutritional analysis very well.
Yams are a powerhouse in vitamin C that also serves up very high levels of potassium. Yams are often used in savory dishes. Their complex carbohydrates and fiber are great for those who want to control their weight. For a terrific in depth description of the nutritional aspects of yams, and some generally good advice on how to cook them, check out this page at The World’s Healthiest Foods.
Sweet potatoes, our Thanksgiving friend, are over the top in vitamin A, manganese, and beta carotene. Sweet potatoes are one of the many veggies that have super anti-inflammatory properties which makes them great for people like me that suffer from arthritis.
True Yam Recipes for those that love to try new things!:
For the Asian yam eaters among the members of Calorie Count, give this delicious sounding recipe from Khana Pakana a try.
I loved looking around the Congo Cookbook. It’s a great resource for anyone that wants to learn how to cook true yams in traditional recipes.
Sweet Potato Recipes that Sometimes Masquerade as Yam Recipes:
For those that don't want their sweet potatoes actually sweet, Buggy prepares her sweet potatoes in a savory way. Savory Yam Perogies are beautiful as a side dish or as an appetizer!
A Calorie Count recipe search led me to this recipe for Orange Glazed Sweet Potatoes. If you have not tried Calorie Count's recipe search bar, give it a try and see what pops up!
Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes - what’s not to like about that phrase? Even the name makes you hungry and there's the bonus of a remarkably low calorie count!
Michael’s Kahlua Yams are even tastier than the marshmallow covered dish many use and the calorie count rocks!
Now remember, I am one of those Americans who did not know a yam from a sweet potato before writing this blog. I had to go looking around for true yam recipes and am still untried with their actual preparation, but I love new recipes and foods and cannot wait to make my first true yam dish. For Thanksgiving though, I’m baking my Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes.
Because there are so many varieties of each (over 200 varieties of yams alone and they can grow to over 7 feet in length!), there is really no one stop method to tell them apart and you may have to rely in part on labeling and where you live.
The link to the government site has a good description, but the best place I've found with pics to show the varieties of each is here. When you see the pics you can get a better idea as to the difference...and the fact that there are so many different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Oh, one more thing, below is a photo of some yams. It's easy to see how the confusion got its start, they are similar in appearance. Yams can be quite huge though - the record owning yam weighed in at 154 pounds (70 kg)! Enjoy your sweet potatoes or yams...whichever you like best!
Do you use the words sweet potatoes and yams interchangeably like I used to do? When you make sweet potatoes for your holiday table, do you look for ways to cut sugar and fat or do you just cook what your family is used to and try not to eat too much? What is your favorite way to prepare them now that you are an experienced calorie counter? Have you ever eaten a true yam? What did you think of it? If you are an experienced cooker of yams or if you have a great sweet potato recipe, will you please send the recipe here? Thanks!