The Real Showdown: Sweet Potatoes vs Yams

Sorry.  It’s not Republicans vs Democrats or even boxers vs briefs …  it’s sweet potatoes vs yams!  Do you know the difference? 

Doing the Yam Cha Cha

It’s confusing, I know, when they are even mislabeled at the grocery store.  But, trust me, a sweet potato is a sweet potato and a yam is … not.

Here in the US, we see 2 main varieties of sweet potatoes.  One has a golden skin with creamy white flesh and a crumbly texture. The other has a copper skin with an orange flesh that is sweet and soft. All sweet potato varieties generally have the same shape and size — they are tapered at the ends and much smaller than yams (which can grow very large –  up to 7 FEET long) !

Americans have been calling the orange-fleshed variety of sweet potatoes “yams” since colonial times when Africans saw similarities between them and the yams they remembered from home. The USDA decided to label them as “yams” to differentiate the two varieties. Both varieties of sweet potato, including “yams” can be widely found in supermarkets.

Yams are native to Africa, Asia and other tropical regions. Yams are starchy tubers that have an almost black bark-like skin and white, purple or reddish flesh and come in many varieties. The tubers can be as small as regular potatoes or grow to be taller than most humans.  Yams are also generally moister and sweeter than sweet potatoes. 

True yams can generally be used in any sweet potato recipe. Yams, unlike sweet potatoes, are toxic if eaten raw, yet perfectly safe when cooked.  Another way they differ from sweet potatoes is they are virtually impossible to find in your average grocery store.  You can usually find them at places like HMart, Caribbean or African grocery stores, or in places like Mexican Fruits in the old DC market  at 1236 4th St, NE.

Craving some yams/sweet potatoes now, are you?  Here’s a recipe with a bit of autumnal flair – African squash & Yams.  Serve it as a side dish with sliced Virginia ham and a spicy, full rosado – like First Vine’s Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado 2010 ($13).   This rosado is fruit forward while still retaining a nice tannic bite for balance.. . a perfect choice to complement both the sweetness of the squash and yams and the saltiness of the ham.

 African Squash and Yams


 1 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

1 pound winter squash, pared and cut into 1″ pieces

2 yams, or sweet potatoes, pared & cut into 1″ pieces

1 cup coconut milk

salt, black pepper

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp ground allspice

Cook and stir onion in oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until

tender. Stir in remaining ingredients. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat.

Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Simmer, uncovered, stirring

occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes longer. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

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