What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?August 10, 2018
What's in a name?
Today, people in North America use the words “yams” and “sweet potatoes” interchangeably.
Why is this?
A Breif History of "Yam"
The word yam is an adaptation of the African word “nyami”, which means “to eat”. The first uses of the word come from the records of the Spanish and Portuguese traders who visited the African coast in the 1580’s.
From the 1600s until the 1930s in North America, Americans of African descent, African slaves, and sharecroppers harvested wide varieties of vegetables, including sweet potatoes. These groups of people used the word "yams" to refer to the smaller, sweeter potatoes.
By the 1930s, the agricultural industry had developed these softer, sweeter potatoes for commercial consumption and marketers were tasked with finding a way to differentiate the new version from it's rougher counterpart. In an example of language influencing culture, they started advertising them as "yams", beginning the trend we know today.
Yams Around the World
It is not uncommon for cultures across the globe to label a small, starchy, root vegetable a "yam". In fact, for centuries, people have defined for themselves what the meaning of "yam" is.
- In Okinawa, purple sweet potatoes may be called "yams"
- In New Zealand, the oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is typically referred to as "yam"
- In Japan, konjac corms are often colloquially referred to as a "yams"
- In Malaysia and Singapore the taro is referred to as a "yam"
Two Different Plants
Yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants. A true yam is more closely related to the palms and grasses plant family, while sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family.
Where a yam is located on the globe matters. There are over 600 different varieties of yams around the world. Sweet potatoes are grown in the southern United States, while yams are grown in their country of origin, Africa, as well as in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Take a Look
It sounds obvious, but you can tell a sweet potato from a yam by the way they look. The outside of a yam has bark-like, hairy-looking skin, while the skin of a North American sweet potato is thin and smooth.
Take a Bite
Yams and sweet potatoes each have their own unique flavor. Yams have a dry, starchy taste, while sweet potatoes are moist and distinctly sweet.
Each has something to offer in terms of versatility. They can be seasoned similarly or used in vastly different recipes.
Try for yourself!