African Yam: Get to Know the True Yam

Are you wondering about all those strange roots and tubers that you see in the produce aisle? And some of them are labeled yam. Wait, what? Aren’t yams the things you eat on Thanksgiving?

Yam in the United States is a misunderstood vegetable. Anyone who has lived in Africa knows that a sweet potato is not a yam.

Let’s clear up the confusion. In this article you will learn about the true African yam, and find some delicious recipes.

True African Yam vs Sweet Potato

This is not a sweet potato. I repeat, this is not a sweet potato! It was very disheartening for me when I came to the United States and found everyone talking about yams, only to find out that they meant sweet potatoes. 

Sweet potatoes are genus and species Ipomoea batatas, and are in the same family of plants as the morning glory. African yams are from the Dioscorea genus, which has over 600 species. The one I am most familiar with is Dioscorea rotundata, the true African yam. 

Dioscorea rotundata is also called true yam, white yam, puna yam, Guinea yam, greater yam and name (pronounced “ny-AAH-MAY” ).

An African yam with a measuring tape showing it is nearly 10 inches long.

The African yam can grow up to 100 pounds and several feet long. It is indigenous to West Africa, and has been cultivated there since at least 5000 BC. The yam in the United States grocery store often comes from Costa Rica or Ghana, but about 66% of global production of yam is from Nigeria (1).

A graphic showing distribution and production of African yam among countries.
Source: National Library of Medicine
(A) Global distribution of yam production in 2018 (Africa 96.2%, America 2.0%, Caribbean 1.0%, Oceania 0.6%, Asia 0.2%, Europe 0%), (B) Top yam producing countries in 2018 (Nigeria—65.9%, Ghana–10.7%, Côte d’Ivoire—9.9%, other countries—14.5%) (2).
An African yam sliced open to reveal the white flesh.

Yam looks kind of like a giant potato covered with tree bark. It comes in many shapes and sizes. The color, texture and taste are completely different from the sweet potato. When you cut into a yam, the flesh inside is white and sounds a little bit crunchy. It is firm with a slippery and fibrous texture. 

Cultural Meaning of the African Yam

In Nigeria, like some other cultures, men and women hold different rights to produce, grow, own and market different types of crops. Ownership and cultivation of yam falls to the male (3). 

Yam is an extremely labor demanding crop that keeps the farmer busy for at least seven months out of the year. Just preparing the ground and planting yam in the rainforest area is a daunting task, and then there is the tending, harvesting of huge tubers, and building and maintaining barns to store them.

Ownership of yam and the ability to grow them successfully signifies male achievement and social prestige.

“His mother and sisters worked hard enough but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.”

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

In traditional communities in southern Nigeria, you know how important a man is by the number of his yam barns (3).  Marriage alliances are based on yam cultivation, since a large family has the manpower to produce more yams. 

There are many social and religious rules that go along with yam cultivation. For instance, in some areas it is taboo to use chemical fertilizers. Yam productivity has a supernatural meaning linked to spirits and ancestors. Stealing the yam, and especially seed yam, is much worse than the theft of any other goods. (3).  

The Yam Festival

Yam should not be cultivated or consumed before the New Year Yam Festival, or it can lead to illness and low productivity. People celebrate the Yam Festival many different ways throughout West Africa. Social and religious rituals of the festival can go on for weeks. 

Generations have handed down the plan for activities leading up to the Festival.  These events are meant to chase away the previous year and usher in the new year. When the day of the festival finally dawns, households feast on yam, visit, exchange gifts and socialize with each other (4).

Customs are certainly different with the rise of Christianity in southern Nigeria. But the cultivation of yam still represents things like ample supply of food, preserving heritage crops and strengthening relationships among kinsmen (3). 

How Nutritious is the African Yam?

A cup of yam has 6 grams of fiber and about 2 ½ grams of protein. It contains 1224 mg of potassium, which is about ¼ of your daily requirement. 

Yam is a good source of vitamin C, and contains smaller amounts of all the other vitamins except B12 and D. In addition, it has a whole list of minerals, including copper, zinc, selenium, manganese, magnesium and iron. There are only small amounts of fats and sugar in yam. It has no cholesterol, being a plant, but has 15 mg phytosterols per cup. Phytosterols are a cholesterol-like substance found in plants. They can actually help to lower blood cholesterol levels if you eat enough of them.

You will find flavonoids, phenols, saponins, tannins and alkaloids in yam. These phytonutrients influence our health in many different ways, including antioxidant and immunomodulatory properties.

Yam has more dietary protein than other root and tuber crops. However, it is not a complete protein source. Yam has limited amounts of tryptophan and the sulfur-based amino acids (2).

How to Store Yam

You do not need to, and should not, refrigerate raw yam. The cold temperatures of the fridge can damage the texture of the yam. Just leave it in a cool, dry place, and you should be able to keep it that way for weeks. Even if you have sliced through the yam, you can put it in a sealed bag and leave it on the counter with the cut side down.

Peeled or cooked yam does need to go in the refrigerator. If you have cut up the yam and peeled it, refrigerate it in a large bowl covered with cold water.

Preparing an African Yam

“I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom —simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I love that passage by Ralph Ellison, even though he is probably talking about sweet potatoes, not yams. Still, it captures the longing for foods that you connect with a lost home, and the joy when you get a chance to eat them.

When to Eat Yam

Yam can easily fit into any meal or snack. It can be a main staple starch to go along with a soup or stew, in the form of pounded yam fufu. Or, it can be the star of the show at a small chops display. You can easily mix yam into dishes with other vegetables, such as in the Yam with Peas recipe in this post.

Peeling and Slicing Yam

Peel a yam by cutting a thick slice, then peeling around the outer edge with a sharp knife.

It is easier to slice through a yam than you would expect. The bark like peel is very thin, and the flesh inside cuts readily. 

The best way to peel a yam is to cut it in thick or thin slices, depending on how you are going to prepare it. Then use a sharp knife to remove the peel around the outer edges of the slice. 

I peel a yam first and then wash the peeled pieces, rubbing them hard under running water to get rid of all the little pieces of dirt and bark.

Be careful when you are cutting or washing a yam. The white flesh is very slippery! It will pop right out of your hands.

Are you wondering how to cook your yam? Try one of the recipes below. Two of them make perfect small chops. The other could be either a main dish or a side dish.

Try Some Yam Recipes

A white bowl filled with fried yam chips.
Yield: 4 generous servings

Fried Yam Chips

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 1 pound piece African yam
  • 4 cups peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt plus more for sprinkling
  • ground red pepper to taste

Instructions

    1. Peel yam and wash under running water.
    2. Cut flesh into long chip shapes, or square cubes.
    3. Cover yam with cold water in a large bowl. Add a tablespoon of salt. Leave it to soak while your oil is heating.
    4. You can microwave your yam pieces for 2 minutes to cook the insides. This way you can take it out of the oil when it is golden brown, without worrying that the center might not be cooked.
    5. Heat oil in a large kettle for deep frying. It should reach 350º.
    6. Drain yam and dry it as best you can on paper towels.
    7. Drop yam into hot oil in batches so that it isn’t too crowded. Fry until golden brown.
    8. Remove from oil. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and ground red pepper. Enjoy!

Yam balls lay on an indigo covered African cloth.
Yield: 25-30 balls

Fried Yam Balls

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour

This is based on the Fried Yam Balls with Corned Beef recipe from South of the Sahara: Traditional Cooking From the Lands of West Africa by Elizabeth (Jackson) Quinn.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound piece of African yam
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground red pepper, or red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup tinned corned beef, chopped or crumbled
  • 4 cups peanut oil

Instructions

  1. Peel yam with a sharp knife and cut into small chunks. Place in medium saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until yam is very soft. Drain yam. Mash in a large bowl with a potato masher. Do not puree in food processor, as this will make your yam runny.
  2. Combine mashed yam with egg, onion, salt, red pepper and corned beef. Mix well. The batter will be very moist, but should get a little firmer as it sits while the oil is heating.
  3. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large, heavy pot to 350º.
  4. Use your hands to roll small balls about the size of a ping pong ball. Drop balls into hot oil 6 or 7 at a time, and fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Notes

The corned beef goes really well in this recipe. You can buy tinned corned beef in the canned fish and meats area of your grocery store. If corned beef doesn't appeal to you, you can substitute smoked fish.

A bowl of yam with green peas and a spoon sit on a red napkin.
Yield: 4 servings

Yam with Green Peas

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

This recipe comes from South of the Sahara: Traditional Cooking From the Lands of West Africa by Elizabeth (Jackson) Quinn.

Ingredients

  • A yam or piece of yam weighing 1 ½ pounds
  • 10 ounces frozen green peas
  • ½ cup peanut oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ - ½ teaspoon ground red pepper, or red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Peel yam and cut into 1 inch cubes. Cover with water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. When yam has simmered for about 3 minutes, throw the green peas into the water. Simmer just until the yam is tender enough to pierce easily with a fork and green peas are cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Do not overcook the yam. Drain and set aside.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion and cook about 5 minutes, until the onion is soft. Then add tomato paste, salt and red pepper.
  4. Add the drained yam and green peas to the skillet. Stir and cook until thoroughly mixed. Serve warm.

Notes

A half cup may seem like a lot of oil to use in this recipe, and it certainly is more than we normally use in American cooking. You can always experiment with less oil.

Pounded Yam Fufu

Fufu, or foofoo, is served across West Africa as the staple starch of a meal. You can make fufu from many types of starchy plants, such as plantain, cassava, millet, and of course yam. It is a smooth, viscous mass served in a ball or mound. You scoop off a small piece of the fufu with your fingers, and dip it in the sauce that is accompanying your meal.

Fufu is very sticky, and in a proper West African restaurant they will give you a bowl of water to periodically clean your hands.

Pounded yam fufu takes a bit of elbow grease to make. First you peel your yam and slice it into small chunks. Then cover it with water and boil until it is very soft. This takes about 20-30 minutes.

Drain the yam chunks and shake them well to get all the water out. Then put them in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Mash them up a bit with a potato masher.

Do not use a food processor to prepare yam. It will break down the starch molecules to the point where they become runny.

Of course, the Nigerian women used a mortar and pestle that was waist high, but we don’t have that kind of equipment. There is a special, heavy wooden paddle that is perfect for pounding the yam while it cooks. 

The fufu paddle is a long, heavy wooden utensil used to pound yam for fufu.
This fufu paddle is 16 inches long.

Just keep aggressively stirring and pressing the yam until it holds together in a mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan. By the time this happens, you will have worked up quite an appetite.

Turn the fufu onto a plate and serve with a delicious palm oil sauce.

The Last Morsel

A plate of yam balls and chips ready for small chop.

The custom in the United States of calling sweet potatoes “yams” has led to a lot of confusion. Yams are members of the Dioscorea genus, while sweet potatoes belong to the Ipomoea genus.

The African yam is indigenous to West Africa, and Nigeria produces over half of the world’s supply. This food has a great cultural and social significance in African life. This crop is work-intensive to grow, but stores well and provides a lot of calories and nutrition as a reward.

You can roast, fry, or boil the versatile yam. You can mix it in dishes, make into small chop or pound it into fufu. 

How do you like to cook your yam?

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