Is A Yam Really A Yam?

During a time of much debating in our country, here is one that hits close to home: sweet potato vs. yam…what’s really on your Thanksgiving table?

“A yam is a yam is a yam.  Unless it is a sweet potato” points out Andrea Weigl in her October 15th News and Observer article, “Sweet Potato Lie“.

So just what is the difference between these southern favorites?  Hailing from the largest sweet potato producing state in the nation, most of us North Carolinians are familiar with both the pale yellow-skinned and the darker orange-skinned sweet potatoes.  It is the orange-skinned sweet potato that we southerners traditionally and mistakenly call a yam.  The true yam is found in tropical climates like those of the Caribbean, South America, and Africa.  Unlike the sweet potato, a yam’s skin has a black or brown color resembling tree bark.  The yam is also sweeter than the sweet potato.

So who can we thank for this mistaken identity?  Weigl suggests that Americans picked up this habit from African slaves using the African word nyami when describing the sweet potato.  Others place blame on the need for differentiation between the two sweet potato types once the orange-skinned sweet potato was introduced to America in the mid 20th century.

To find more information on North Carolina’s state vegetable, the sweet potato, try the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, the Yambassador (see above), or the annual Yam Festival in Tabor City, which started on October 23rd (don’t worry…you haven’t missed the parade—it’s on October 25th).  For sweet potato recipes check out the North Carolina Collection’s array of cook books including the Sweet potato recipe book: Sixth Annual Carolinas Yam Festival.

3 thoughts on “Is A Yam Really A Yam?”

  1. Miss Alison, I consider this post a wonderful contribution to humanity!

    Whatever you term sweet potatoes, I’ll always call them delicious.

  2. By total chance while leafing through the May 1869 (volume 1, number 1) issue of the 19th century magazine “The Reconstructed Farmer,” I stumbled on an article entitled, “Yamoka, or Sweet Potato.” That magazine was published in Tarboro, N.C., but the article is reprinted from the “New Orleans Picayune.” The article states that Yamoka is the “aboriginal name for the sweet potato.” It continues, “This name is here especially bestowed upon it as dessicated, or with all the moisture and decaying matter dried out of it, so that it can be kept for years and carried to any quarter of the globe for use there, . . .”

    Googling “yamoka” revealed nothing! Maybe sweet potato scholars and connoisseurs of the world have a new etymological mission?!

  3. I am in need to find out in which State are the african yams (Discorea) grown! Or if there is a company that I can contact to import the tubers for commercial production that I am willing to start as aproject.
    Thanking you in advance. beta

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