Monday, October 21, 2013

Are My Yams Really Sweet Potatoes? Does Anybody Really Care?

 Recently someone asked me why we called sweet potatoes "yams" and why they were different colors?  I thought they were just different varieties of yams.   I really didn't have a definitive answer. I really don't like not being a smarty-pants.  So I thought I'd look into it.  I, Chef Tess, learned something new! Come to find out...what I had called "sweet potatoes" were just one variety of sweet potato (the white ones)...and there were many in the USA in fact really dopey as I felt, I had been calling  sweet potato varieties "yams" that were well...not real yams. 

Sweet Potatoes VS Yams...What's the Diff'?
general information source
Yams Yams are related to lilies and grasses.They're native to Africa and Asia and yams vary in size from that of a small potato to a record 130 pounds (as of 1999). Remarkably there are over 600 varieties of yams. 95% of these crops are grown in their native Africa. Yams are starchy and dry compared to sweet potatoes. 

A few years ago my whole garden was filled with this gorgeous vine...and under the ground were soon to be released...some "Yams". Well. Most people I knew called them yams. Daddy called them sweet potatoes and since he's the master gardener, I never questioned it.

Sweet Potatoes 
The many varieties of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are members of the morning glory family, Convolvulacea.  This explains the vines. 
The skin color can range from white to yellow, red, purple or brown. The flesh also ranges in color from white to yellow, orange, or orange-red. Sweet potato varieties are classified as either ‘firm’ or ‘soft’. 
 When cooked, those in the ‘firm’ category remain firm, while ‘soft’ varieties become soft and moist. It is the ‘soft’ varieties that are often labeled as yams in the United States.  When I got these ones from the market,  the one on the left (white in color) was labeled "sweet potato" while the middle one was labeled "red yam" and the far right was labeled Bouregard yam...and guess what. They're all sweet potatoes. 

Why Are We Confused In America?
In the United States, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced before soft varieties. When soft varieties were first grown commercially, there was a need to differentiate between the two. African slaves had already been calling the ‘soft’ sweet potatoes ‘yams’ because they resembled the yams in Africa. 

When we pulled our Sweet Potatoes out of the ground...we called them sweet potatoes. Thanks to my dad.

The ‘soft’ sweet potatoes were referred to as ‘yams’ to distinguish them from the ‘firm’ varieties. Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’ Unless you specifically search for yams, which are usually found in an international market, you are probably eating sweet potatoes!  

Last I checked, my neighborhood market didn't carry the international variety. So there you go. Smarty pants.
The real truth is, that though many may say that they are having candied yams for the holidays, I betcha that most of y'all are really only eating sweet potatoes.  Why do I even care to set the record straight? I don't really.  I just thought it was a really cool random fact.  So. Eat that sweet potato caramel sticky bun.
 I'm still eating the sweet potato pie...even if someone calls it a yam pie. It's not really going to change the taste...right?

There you go. 
Random Facts are now in your giant brain too.  

Always My Very Best,
Your Friend Chef Tess


Sunshine115 said...

Every year at Thanksgiving, there is a 'discussion' on this subject. I have a Father in Law that is quite the know-it-all that has the lecture prepared. UGGG! no matter! "yam pie" just doesn't roll off the tongue like "sweet potato pie", everyone sounds southern with that one!

whanupp said...

This was very helpful!!! thank you!!

whanupp said...

Thank you!! This was very helpful!! Sweet potatoes have a ton of vitamin A (which I'm trying to increase in my diet) and yams don't, so I was really worried I had just bought 10 of the wrong type of yam/potatoe :) Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness I was trying to post a comment and didn't realize it had been processed because it has the smallest notification in the corner, sorry you had to read so many of my attempts!!

gabrielle said...

'Love you, Tess! Thank you for the edification. I can now stop leaving rude notes for my online grocery shopper to not send me yams, but sweet potatoes! 'Guess from here on out, I'll just have to insist that s/he pick the beige-colored variety!

Thanks again! :)

'Total non sequitur -- in the kindest spirit possible -- from one SmartyPants to another: "these ones" is redundant. "These" is all you need.