Most Americans assume they’ve eaten yams, perhaps when they were served “candied” at a Thanksgiving dinner. But in reality, surprisingly few of us have ever enjoyed a real yam — they’re relatively rare in most U.S. grocery stores, where orange sweet potatoes, like garnets and jewels, have been called “yams” for nearly a century. So you may have to search for the real thing, but rest assured, the effort is well worth it. Yams (try Hawaiian, Korean and sweet yams for starters) are delicious and versatile and can help reduce your risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and control blood pressure. Here are some tips on tracking them down — and then eating them up.
A tropical plant, yams contain more moisture and have higher natural sugar content than sweet potatoes. Yams are long and cylindrical and can weigh from a few ounces to 120 pounds. (They’re often sold in chunks by weight.) Their rough, thick skin may be white, pink or brownish black. The flesh comes in tones of off-white, yellow, pink and purple. Although they are relatively hard to find in most American grocery stores, more than 200 varieties are grown worldwide. You may have to prod your local grocer to stock true yams, or look for them in African, Caribbean or Asian food markets. When purchasing, select dense yams without traces of softness or mold.
Yams are high in vitamins B6 and C, making them a good food to help reduce your risk for heart disease and to lower cholesterol. The purple-flesh varieties are high in anthocyanin and betalain, phytonutrients linked to improved brain function and antioxidant activity. Yams also pack an ample supply of potassium, which helps control blood pressure. The complex carbohydrates and fiber in yams release and absorb slowly into the bloodstream, making them a smart choice for steady energy. Herbal-medicine practitioners have long used wild yam (also called Chinese yam) and its extract to support kidney function and the female endocrine system.
- Store yams in a cool, dark, dry place for up to two weeks. Do not refrigerate.
- Wash yams, and remove the skin with a vegetable peeler or paring knife.
- To keep a yam from rolling when you’re cutting it into desired sizes, cut off a 1/4-inch slice lengthwise from one side, making a flat surface. Then place the flat side on a cutting board to continue slicing.
Always cook yams before eating. Most are too dry to bake, so after peeling and cutting the yams into the desired size, cook them by boiling, steaming or roasting with other vegetables. Yams’ earthy taste complements spicy or heavily flavored lean meats, hearty fish stews and roasted poultry.
- Boil or steam yams, and serve them diced or mashed as a side dish.
- Shred yams, and include them in fritters or pancakes.
- Yams and rich ingredients such as milk, coconut milk, eggs and butter are a delicious combination. When recipes that include these ingredients call for potatoes or sweet potatoes, you can substitute yams if you like.
- For a quick and tasty dish, purée cooked yams with milk, and season with tamari, coriander, cumin and cayenne.
- Add julienned yams to stir-fries.
- Roast yams with sliced fennel, onions and mushrooms for a delicious side dish.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).