Sweet Potatoes; not Yams; Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams.

All three are consumed by humans and other animals; all three have significant health benefits (even when doused in butter and marshmallow cream); all three have a vague resemblance to each other.

But that’s all, folks.

Potatoes are related to tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and tomatillos.

Sweet potatoes are related to Morning Glories (the flower).

Yams are related to… yams.

All three are gnarly, root-tuber looking vegetables, but a yam is a tuber, a sweet potato is a storage root and a potato is a stem tuber…. and all three from different botanical families.

The confusion of the ‘sweet potato’ and ‘potato’ names we can put squarely on the shoulders of old Chris Columbus and other early explorers who forgot their Berlitz Travel Dictionaries and confused the early translations.  Earliest reference to the sweet potato is in the 1775 version of the Oxford English dictionary.

The confusion of the ‘sweet potato’ and ‘yam’ names we can put squarely on the shoulders of the production / marketing types in the middle of the 1900’s.  Up until then sweet potatoes had been of the dry, light-fleshed variety.  When the moist, orange-fleshed variety was introduced, some bright spark decided the American consumer wasn’t capable of grasping that a vegetable could come in two colors and decided to label the orange one ‘yam’.

My grandmother successfully navigated a garden filled with green and yellow string beans, red and white radishes, purple and green cabbages….

But she couldn’t be trusted to handle both white and orange sweet potatoes.

Yams are a staple in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  They are difficult to peel, can get very large, must be cooked before eating and take twice as long to grow as sweet potatoes (180 – 360 days for yams, 90 – 150 days for sweet potatoes).

Sweet potatoes most often are the size of a large potato.

I love sweet potatoes.

I’ve never tasted a yam.

Sweet potatoes were very popular in the early 1900’s, but started to fall out of favor during the middle decades (maybe due to the confusion over their name)…

Except for that horrid, candied, sweet, marshmallow thing that used to turn up next to the green bean casserole on holiday tables.

They are low in calories, high in vitamins and minerals and are finding there way back onto our tables.

And they are very versatile – much like their namesake, the potato.

You can simple bake them or fry them of course.

Or do Sweet Potato Oven Fries

Sweet Potato Oven Fries
Or how about Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes?

These just happened to be the white variety.  I think what was so surprising to me was they looked like potatoes but the taste and texture was of the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

White Sweet Potatoes, Roasted
Spicy Sweet Potatoes

2 sweet potatoes
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp course black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground ginger
red pepper flakes if you use them, too hot for me

Slice potatoes in half the long way, then in half the long way again. Then cut into chunks 1 – 1 1/2″ (4cm) wide.
Put remaining ingredients into large bowl and mix well. Add potatoes and toss, coating thoroughly.
Oven: Arrange potatoes on baking sheet with rim (I use my trusty, round pizza pan) Bake at 400F for 30 minutes. You can turn once if you like to fuss but I usually don’t bother. Remove from oven and serve.
Barbecue Grill: Put them into an old metal pie plate or cake tin or foil barbecue container. Cook on barbecue (grill) for 30 minutes or until done… and you will need to stir them with a long-handled wooden spoon occasionally as they tend to develop ‘hot spots’ and can get a little crispy.

A few weeks ago I did Sweet Potatoes Anna

Sweet Potatoes Anna

And if you really insist on adding sweet to the sweet potato….

This used to be my contribution to the holiday table when I lived in the US.  Now I make a smaller version – for 2 (with enough left for another meal).

Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes

Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes

24oz (1 1/2 lb, 750gr) sweet potatoes, 2 large
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbs butter
pinch of nutmeg

Peel sweet potatoes and cut into 3/4 inch (2cm) rounds (the short way). Cook in boiling, salted water until just tender, easily pierced with a knife. Remove and drain.
While potatoes cook heat the syrup, butter and brown sugar to boiling in a small saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.
To assemble: Lay the potatoes in a baking dish just large enough to hold them all easily. Don’t fuss with the layers but do spoon a bit of syrup over each potato slice. Pour the rest of the syrup over the top and bake, uncovered, 350F (175F) for 30 minutes. Baste once after 15 minutes with the syrup from the bottom of the baking dish. Serve.

BTW, the US Department of Agriculture now requires that all sweet potatoes that are labeled ‘Yams’ must also contain a label identifying them as ‘Sweet Potatoes’.

Boy, that sure clears everything up!

Added 27/12:  In case I didn’t make this all perfectly clear:

If it vaguely resembles a potato, is about the size of a large potato and you got it in North America or Europe it’s a sweet potato.

If it weighs 15 pounds, you can’t peel it without cooking first and you bought it in Asia, Africa or South America, it’s a yam.

10 thoughts on “Sweet Potatoes; not Yams; Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes”

  1. When living in West Africa we ate yams, but they were called sweet potatoes. 🙂
    But what we liked best was sweet potato leaf. You’d buy bunches in the market for about a nickel, and they tasted just like spinach. YUM.

  2. Those sure look like yams to me. In Canada, a sweet potato is a creamy yellow color, while the yams are a distinct orange….just like your photo. Give me a yam any day! I too make a similar maple glazed yam dish, so delish

  3. Love sweet potatoes whatever the name.
    I was planning on having them this week and now it will be the spicy version. Can’t wait to try them
    Pour a little bourbon over your maple glazed potatoes you’ll love it.

  4. I love me some sweet potato fries! I don’t make them nearly enough though, because aside from fries, sweet potatoes hold no interest for me.

  5. Oh, there were yams in West Africa, HUGE things that could weigh up to 50 pounds, but the little ones, the ones from which the greens were harvested, those were sweet potatoes.
    And then there were edoes, that were fermented to make a gooey starch (like fufu, made from cassava) that was swallowed whole, not chewed. (Chew it and your teeth would be glued together, really!)
    Confused yet? :):):)

  6. I made roasted sweet potatoes for Christmas Day dinner this year. Just chopped them up into biggish dice pieces, drizzled a little olive oil over them, sprinkled on some rubbed sage and marjoram, and roasted them with the turkey.
    My SIL and her friend (both originally from Florida) looked vaguely horrified when I mentioned I was making sweet potatoes, but I reassured them that there were no marshmallows involved. 😉 That I find them quite sweet enough without having to ADD sugary things to them.
    I got the Southern Girl Seal of Approval, and more than one “I need to remember this”. 😀 Yay, sweet potatoes!

  7. brassfrog, now that just adds to the confusion!
    Ina, the name is all a marketing ploy!
    Zoomie, yes, just perfect!
    Karen, bourbon? That could just put it over the top – thanks!
    TV Food and Drink – I love the fries, too. And feel so self-righteous because they’re healthy
    brassfrog, okay,okay…. I have never actually seen a yam…
    manningroad – you are very lucky – it should be banned!
    Kerry, the spice goes well with the sweet.
    Laurie, it can be hard to get past those stereotypes, can’t it?

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