Here we will unfold the mystery behind true yams, American “yams” and sweet potatoes, while partaking in the delightful African yam dish nkyemire.
Background of My Using This African Recipe
This recipe came to me in the early 1980’s, while catering and teaching cooking classes in Billings, MT. I employed it in a African repast that included bobotie (a lamb dish baked in a curry-custard) and chin-chin (Nigerian wedding pastries), which will be my next two posts. These outstanding dishes from Africa were among other native delicacies in this colorful dinner, which was one of my most popular classes.
What Are True Yams?
Today’s nkyemire receipt calls for African yams, which differ from what Americans call yams. Yams, Dioscorea, are a tuber that originated in Africa and Asia, but now also are commonly found in the Caribbean and Latin America, with 95% being grown in Africa. Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, on the other hand, are a starchy root vegetable or tuber, which originated in Central or South America. 1
Columbus introduced the sweet potato to Europe; subsequently it was established in China and the Philippines by the end of the 15th century. It has now become the second most important vegetable worldwide. 2
True yams differ from sweet potatoes primarily in size and color, for they can grow very large-up to 5 feet and 132 lbs. These are cylindrical in shape with brown, rough, scaly-textured skin, and their flesh can be white, yellow, purple, or pink. Their taste is less sweet and much more starchy and dry than sweet potatoes. 3
Sweet Potatoes and “Yams” in America
Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory family, with an orange flesh, and a white, yellow, purple or orange skin. This vegetable is sometimes shaped like a potato, though it may be longer and tapered at both ends. Yams in America differ from true yams, like those found in Africa. What we call yams here are actually orange-colored sweet potatoes-except those found in certain international food markets. 4
The orange-fleshed variety of sweet potato was introduced to the U.S. in 1930s marketing campaigns. 5 At that time, Americans were only used to the white variety of sweet potato; thus, to distinguish the orange-fleshed potato from this white variety, producers and shippers chose to use an English form of the African name nyami , meaning “to eat”; thus, our word “yam” was adopted. These yams, however, are vastly different from the true yam, as originated in Africa and Asia. Yams, as Americans call them, are sweet potatoes in actuality. 6
Importance of Tending to our Memories
One of my catered, African-themed events was a law firm’s employee-appreciation-gathering in Billings, during the summer of 1984; they had imbibed in South African wines and started throwing people in the swimming pool, at which point I gracefully exited the party-my check in hand.
Exposures to food become etched in our minds, as do certain life experiences, such as the one above. We must be careful as to what we allow our minds to dwell on, as memories surface. We can override poorer impressions left on our hearts, through purposeful practice, much like we can train ourselves to banish certain distastes, for ailments that were initially displeasing. All must be properly tended to with diligence.
In this way, we can habituate our beings to let go of unpleasant, reoccurring thoughts, about either ailments or activities. Indeed, we are responsible to hush these tendencies to recall negative, experiential occurrences created by either food or life. Note: perhaps this can only done with the mighty help of God; thus, we ask for his gracious, omnipotent assistance.
Enjoy this simple receipt made with American “yams”-sweet potatoes. If desired, go to an international market to get true yams and thus experience the accurate taste of this native dish. For other sweet potato recipes, go to Sweet Potato Pie and Sprouted Quinoa and Yam Salad.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 304.
- Harold McGee, On Food and History (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 304
African Nykemire (Yams with Mushrooms) Yields: 6 servings. Total prep time: 1 hr, plus 1 1/4 hr ahead of time for baking yams. Note: if refrigerating yams baked ahead, bring to room temperature several hours before preparing recipe.
3 med/lg yams, or sweet potatoes, about 2 1/2 lbs (A 5-lb-bag of organic yams is available for $4.95 at Trader Joe’s, or 3 lbs/$3.95.)
2 tbsp lemon juice (Organic lemons are only $1.69 for 4-6 lemons-1 lb-at Trader’s.)
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped, including green part (Organic is only slightly more expensive.)
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and diced fine (Organic is important, as peppers absorb pesticides readily.)
10 oz mushrooms (A 10-oz-package of small, white mushrooms is available at Trader Joe’s for $1.79.)
6 tbsp ghee or butter (Ghee will give the best health benefits and flavor; for easy recipe, see Ukrainian Spinach with Noodles.)
Salt and pepper to taste (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; a fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco for $4.95 for 5 lbs.
This step may be done ahead of time. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare yams as follows.
- Spray yams with a vegetable spray (for an inexpensive, effective spray, combine 97% white distilled vinegar with 3% hydrogen peroxide); let sit three minutes and rinse well. Wrap in tin foil, carefully gathering the foil at the top, so all the ends point upward; this insures that the juices don’t spill on your oven (see photo above).
- Bake yams for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours; watch carefully so yams are rather soft, but not mushy! Remove from oven and cool.
- Peel and cut cooled yams in 1″-thick slices.
- Squeeze lemon juice, set aside.
- Chop bell pepper and onions-including green part-into small pieces. Set aside together in a bowl.
Clean mushrooms, by brushing with a mushroom brush (see photo).
- Heat 4 tbsp butter, or better yet ghee, in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Quickly cook mushrooms, after distributing oils evenly throughout; stir frequently and cook just until they are becoming tender. Remove to a bowl, with a slotted spoon.
- Add onions and green pepper to hot liquid, cook for 2-3 minutes, or until limp. Remove pan from heat.
- In another skillet, heat 2 tbsp butter or ghee. Place yam slices in hot fat, salt and pepper to taste, and cook on both sides, until golden brown (see photo at top of recipe).
- Meanwhile, return mushrooms to pan of onions and peppers and add 2 tbsp lemon juice. Place over medium heat, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste, and heat thoroughly.
- Put browned yams on a plate and cover with hot mushroom mixture, see photo at top of entry. Serve immediately and enjoy!