Though virtually interchangeable from a culinary perspective, botanically sweet potatoes and yams share nothing. The yam is a member of the lily family, while the sweet potato belongs to the morning glory family. And the two plants probably originated from different parts of the world.
Sweet potatoes were a New World plant, discovered by Columbus on his first voyage. European acceptance of the sweet potato following Columbus’s return to Spain was immediate and enthusiastic. It became known as the “Spanish potato”, and was even elevated to the status of aphrodisiac. Henry the VIII had sweet potatoes imported from Spain and made into many types of confections.
Yams probably originated in Africa. Slaves in the American South called sweet potatoes “nyamis” because they reminded them of a vegetable of that same name from their homeland. Most “yams” available in this country today are really a variety of sweet potato.True yams contain a compound from which the sex hormone estrogen was first manufactured.
The French writer and chef Antonin Careme assured the sweet potato immortality, when he included it in his classic The Art of French Cooking in the Nineteenth Century. Less well known is the vegetable’s popularity in China, where it is sun-dried and used for noodle making, and in Japan, where it has been a staple for hundreds of years. Who can forget how tasty sweet potatoes are in tempura!
Sweet potatoes or yams make the perfect addition to hearty vegetable stews, providing an excellent source of vitamin A and potassium. Choose those that are firm to the touch and have unblemished skins.
Curried Yam & Mushroom Stew from Laura Lee Carter’s Kitchen 2006
Total preparation time: 2 hours, serves: 5 or 6
3 slices bacon, chopped small
3-4 cups. beef bouillon broth
1 med. onion, chopped
1 large yam chopped into small pieces
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup chopped celery
1-2 tsp. curry powder (to taste)
1 cup chopped mushrooms
¾ cup uncooked rice
Saute bacon, onions, garlic & celery for a few minutes in a couple tablespoons of butter. Then stir in mushrooms (if fresh.) Add broth, yam, mushrooms (if canned) and one can of soup. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Add curry powder, salt & pepper to taste.
After everything is completely cooked, add ¾ cup basmati rice (my favorite) and simmer 20-30 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until rice softens.
Tastes great with cornbread!