Are They Yams Or Sweet Potatoes?

Yams, sweet potatoes, I always get them mixed up. You would think I would know the difference, but I have to confess, I don’t really. But maybe I am not all that wrong either. Most people don’t know the differences between the two. The differences are so subtle, and they taste very similar as well. A yam really IS a sweet potato. Yes, all so-called “yams” are in fact sweet potatoes. Most people think that long, red-skinned sweet potatoes are yams, but they really are just one of many varieties of sweet potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes are interchangeable in most recipes, and most grocery stores only carry sweet potatoes rather than true yams. True yams are hard to come by and are imported from Africa. Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’ Despite the label regulations, most people still think of sweet potatoes as yams regardless of their true identity.

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. Thus, ‘soft’ sweet potatoes were referred to as ‘yams’ to distinguish them from the ‘firm’ varieties. The reason for the name mix-up is because Louisiana sweet potato growers marketed their orange-fleshed potatoes as “yams” to distinguish them from other states’ produce in the 1930s—and it stuck. The skin of a yam (left) looks kind of like tree bark, while a sweet potato (right) is more reddish-brown. Depending on the variety, sweet potato flesh can vary from white to orange and even purple. The orange-fleshed variety was introduced to the United States several decades ago. In order to distinguish it from the white variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word “nyami” and labeled them “yams.”

Yams are starchy and have a rough, brown exterior. They can grow up to 4-5 feet long and are eaten in parts of Latin America, West Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. Sweet potatoes are a New World root vegetable, have a softer, reddish skin, a creamier interior, and often, a darker interior. Yams are slightly sweeter tasting than sweet potatoes, and they are larger too, but they are kissing cousins, though they are from different families.

Whether they go by yams or sweet potatoes, they are very popular in Latin America, the Caribbean Islands, Asia and parts of the United States. Sweet potatoes, or “yams, are the fifth largest food crop in the Caribbean Islands. They were first domesticated in Latin America about 5,000 years ago. Sweet potatoes are very versatile and hearty. They can grow in many different terrains and areas. They are conducive to sustainable growth, producing high yields per unit area of land with limited impact to air, water, land, soil or forests and can grow at both high and low altitudes, with a smaller environmental footprint than other staple crops. They easily adapt to harsh environmental conditions— also making them a climate-resilient crop— and provides environmental benefits with respect to climate change mitigation and soil health. In the Caribbean Islands, Jamaica is the largest producer of sweet potatoes, growing about 43,000 tons, followed by Haiti at 42,000 tons annually.

When I made my Jamaican jerk steak Jamaican Jerk Steak I also made some Caribbean style sweet potatoes to go along with it. They went with the steak very well and tasted great. As with anything, there is always a wide variety of recipes out there, and this is one of many possibilities. These are my own creation, based on our many trips to various parts of the Caribbean Islands.

Caribbean Style Sweet Potatoes

1-2 large sweet potatoes, rinsed, peeled and diced medium

1/2 red onion, diced medium

1/2 yellow bell pepper, 1/2 orange bell pepper and 1/2 red bell pepper, diced medium

1 TBSP garlic

1 tsp allspice

1/2 tsp nutmeg

salt & pepper to taste

olive oil and butter for cooking

Cook all the vegetables and seasonings together in a hot skillet with both olive oil and butter, stirring frequently. You can also use canola or vegetable oil if you prefer, and you won’t need the butter, since both of these oils have a higher smoke point than olive oil. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and tender. If you want them a little crunchier, boil them first in water with about 1 TBSP of white vinegar for about 10 minutes at a rapid boil before pan frying them. And that’s it. All that is left to do is to plate them up next to your main meal attraction and enjoy.

Stay cool, stay safe and stay well Everyone. ‘Til next time.


Author: ajeanneinthekitchen

I have worked in the restaurant and catering industry for over 35 years. I attended 2 culinary schools in Southern California, and have a degree in culinary arts from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, as well as a few other degrees in other areas. I love to cook and I love to feed people.

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