Sweet potatoes? Yams? Confusion reigns around these nutritious tubers

You say yam, I say sweet potato. So which is it? I grew up eating both. Or, so I thought.

Candied yams are a dinner table favourite at every Thanksgiving and Christmas. This delicious casserole is a surefire winner for those who don’t like vegetables and kids who won’t eat sweet potatoes. Try them sprinkled with a nut topping or the traditional roasted marshmallows

Candied yams are a dinner table favourite at every Thanksgiving and Christmas. This delicious casserole is a surefire winner for those who don’t like vegetables and kids who won’t eat sweet potatoes. Try them sprinkled with a nut topping or the traditional roasted marshmallows

You say yam, I say sweet potato. So which is it? I grew up eating both. Or, so I thought.

My mom always referred to yam as a “variety of sweet potato”. My daughter once told me that she prefers “the yellow sweet potato over the orange mushy yam.” I was surprised that she knew the difference. She gave me her teenage know-it-all look and stated, “everyone knows the difference.”

Well, I can’t totally claim that I know the difference. When purchasing either of these, I came to the realization that I wasn’t the only one bamboozled by these tubers!

At one grocery store the orange tuber was labeled as the “yam” and the white one “sweet potato.” Another store labeled them reverse to this while still another store sold the vegetable as “yam/sweet potato!”

And, so my quest to distinguish the two vegetables began. Talking to other food aficionados and the internet research resulted in more confusion. Some claimed that the distinction is in the flesh; yams are orange coloured while sweet potato are the white fleshed. Others claimed that the white fleshed were just a variety of sweet potatoes and yams are rarely found in the grocery stores.

So are the sweet potatoes being passed off as yams? According to the Wikipedia that’s what is happening in the United States and Canada.

You might wonder where all of the confusion came from. The yam/sweet potato conundrum may have been started by our southern neighbours when slaves were shipped over to the United States from Africa. The yam, which is a very important starchy part of many African diets, looks a little bit like a sweet potato. Thus many slaves used the words yam and sweet potato interchangeably and the African word nyami, was adopted in its English form: yam.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the label “yam” always be accompanied by “sweet potato.”

When these miss-named root veggies made it across the border, the name on the crate stuck, leading grocery stores here to list them as yams. Hence the confusion.

Even though sweet potato and yam are referred to and used in recipes interchangeably, they are biologically unrelated plants.

The main distinguishing feature between the two is the skin texture. Yams have a rough skin with a potato-like flesh. The sweet potatoes are smooth with skins that can vary in color, depending on the variety, from pale yellow to deep purple to vivid orange. Flesh colours can range from light yellow to pink, red or orange.

There is also a difference nutritionally. Sweet potatoes are relatively low in calories and have no fat. They are rich in beta-carotene; having five times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A in one sweet potato, as well as being loaded with potassium.

Yams are not a great source of Vitamin A but they are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, manganese, dietary fibre, and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).

After my research, all I can say is that I am not sure if I have ever tasted a real yam. I may have only used a variety of sweet potato in my kitchen.

But whatever you want to call them, there are so many ways to incorporate the sweet potato into recipes.

Here are some tips to add this terrific tuber to your cooking repertoire:

• Use sweet potatoes wherever you would use white potatoes or squash.

• Cooked sweet potato is great in muffins, pies, quick breads and pancakes.

• Add diced cooked sweet potato to fruit salad. Try them with pineapple, banana, apples or pears.

• Don’t forget the diced sweet potato when making soup.

• For a different salad topping try raw sweet potato. Or substitute raw sweet potatoes for carrots in snacks, salads and soups.

• Sweet potatoes can be substituted for regular potatoes when making latkes.

• Serve roasted sweet potato wedges with roast meats and poultry dishes.

• Surprise your family with colorful mashed sweet potatoes instead of white ones.

• Instead of regular potato fries, try making your own roasted sweet potato slices. Thinly slice sweet potato, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper and spices. Roast in oven until golden and crisp.

• Bake a sweet potato and top it a small amount of cinnamon and brown sugar blended into a soft, non-hydrogenated margarine.

Spicy Sweet Potato and Quinoa Salad

1 cup quinoa, uncooked

2 cups vegetable broth or water

1 sweet potato, baked and diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

3 tbsp olive oil

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

3tbsp lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

Simmer the quinoa in the vegetable broth about 10 to 15 minutes, or until water is gone and quinoa is light and fluffy when stirred. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Toss together the quinoa, sweet potato and bell pepper in a large bowl.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and cayenne pepper. Gently toss this dressing with the quinoa. Season with a generous amount of salt and pepper.

Sweet potato biscuits

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 heaping tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) softened butter

2 to 4 tablespoons milk (depending on the moisture of the potatoes)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate, large bowl, mix the sweet potatoes and butter. Add the flour mixture to the potato mixture and mix to make a soft dough. Then add milk a tablespoon at a time to mixture and continue to cut in. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and toss lightly until the outside of the dough looks smooth. Roll the dough out to 1/2-inch thick and cut with a biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a greased pan and coat tops with melted butter. Bake for about 15 minutes. (Watch your oven: If the biscuits are browning too fast, lower the temperature.)

Savoury Sweet Potato Pancakes

1 sweet potato (about 12 oz/375 g)

1 small 0nion

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely minced

2 tbsp (25 mL) all-purpose flour

1 tsp (5 mL) salt

1/4 tsp (1mL) ground cumin

1/4 tsp (1 mL) cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

1 egg, lightly beaten

Vegetable oli

In small bowl, stir together yogurt, coriander, green onion and salt; set aside.

Peel potato; grate into medium bowl. Peel onion and grate into same bowl; toss. Turn into strainer and squeeze to press out any liquid; return to bowl. Stir in jalapeño. In small bowl, stir together flour, salt, cumin and cayenne pepper; toss with sweet potato mixture. Stir in egg until thoroughly mixed.

Heat just enough oil to coat bottom of large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Using about 3 tbsp (45 mL) potato mixture for each pancake, press gently into 2 inches (5 cm) round. Place in pan. Repeat, adding about 4 more to pan, but do not crowd skillet. Cook for 3 minutes or until bottoms have set and are crisp and brown. Carefully flip and cook until crisp and brown and hot inside, 2 to 3 more minutes. Serve with mango chutney.

Sweet Potato Casserole

2-1/4 to 2-1/2 pounds (about 4 cups) sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed

1/3 cup butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar


1/2 cup chopped nuts

1/2 cup flaked coconut (or small marshmallows)

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons butter, melted

In a large mixing bowl, combine mashed potatoes, butter, eggs, milk, vanilla extract and sugar.

Spread into a greased 1-1/2-qt. casserole. For topping, combine all ingredients and sprinkle over potatoes. Bake at 375°F for 25 minutes or until heated through.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at madhubadoni@gmail.com. Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on bprda.wpengine.com.

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