Yams Aren’t Yams

Super Tubers at the Farmers Market

The yams at the Farmers Market are tasting fantastic right now. Although, really, there are no yams.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, or been reading too much Louis Carroll. You’ll find two varieties of sweet potatoes at our wide array of Farmers Markets: the pale-skinned sweet potatoes called “sweet potatoes” and the orange-skinned sweet potatoes that we’ve all learned to call “yams.”


But true yams are pretty hard to find in the U.S. They are derived from the Dioscorea genus of plants and the lily family and they originally hail from Asia and West Africa. Indeed, the word “yam” is the English variation on the African name “nyami.” Commercially, the ones that make it to the United States come from the Caribbean these days, so it’s no wonder that we don’t see too many here on the West Coast. But since we Americans call things what we want, the darker sweet potatoes are now called “yams.” (Though it’s worth noting that when it comes to official government nomenclature, the yams are always dually labeled “sweet potatoes” when being shipped.)

What we get to eat from our markets then are technically all sweet potatoes, which have a South American origin and come from the Morning Glory plant family.

To make things more confusing, what we call “sweet potatoes” are not terribly sweet, but pretty similar to a plain old white potato. And what we call “yams,” on the other hand, have flesh that’s brilliantly sweet and moist, and good for you — high in antioxidants and vitamin C. In any case, they’re both great to eat this Thanksgiving season, so here’s a recipe for the orange-skinned variety.

To prepare the orange-skinned sweet potatoes: Wash “yams” and prick all over with a fork. Place directly on a rack in a 450-degree oven, and cook for 30-35 minutes until soft to the touch. (If you fancy a clean oven, place a sheet of foil on the bottom of the oven beneath the “yams”) Serve whole or mash them with butter, salt, and pepper

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