Developing familiarity with yams, true yams, particularly for folks who have none, is sure to surprise. As mentioned here, they are not the soft, sweet tubers Americans in the United States use to whip up pies, or casseroles. Those dishes are the domain of the delicate sweet potato.
You’ll never find a hearty yam sweetened and baked with butter and topped with marshmallows. They’re tough, hard, big, and sometimes even poisonous. All varieties, in fact, have varying levels of toxins that yield a bitter taste if not prepared properly for cooking. I know this from experience. That’s a curious thing about western African food, actually and fodder for another post. In any case, I knew all of this in theory, but I was still rather unprepared for the big, brown, crusty thang on my counter.
It was quite large, the yam in question—easily a foot long and close to six pounds . . . This one N said was Ghana yam, and though I knew very little of yams at the time, I recognized that it really was a perfect specimen.
Still it sat there three days until I moved it into a basket with my onions and potatoes. And there, it sat several days more. Yams are not sweet, but because it spent such a long time waiting for me, I think it developed a bit sweetness, because when we finally did prepare it, I detected a hint. I am convinced that old yams = slightly sweet yams. But then I didn’t know the first thing about yams and frankly I’m still no expert, but I’m getting there. (This study suggests that yams might just develop sugars as they age. How about that?)
Anyway, there it sat in the basket on the top shelf of the kitchen bookcase until N began dropping serious and frequent hints about yam porridge. I inferred from this that he wanted me to prepare it, which was, of course, problematic since my preparation experience was limited to one unfortunate attempt at making dundu that turned out terribly bitter and inedible, upon reflection I’m pretty sure it was a bad yam. Yes, I’m sticking to that story, it was a very bad yam. By contrast, N ate and prepared yams and yam porridge regularly —like at least once a week— and apparently never tired of it. It was a staple for him in Nigeria as it is throughout much of western Africa. But I had no idea what to do with it, so there it sat in the basket intimidating my poor potatoes and sweet potatoes; my onions, my garlic.
Finally, after realizing that if he did not intervene nothing would become of the yam but a big, rotten mess, N decided to make things happen by teaching me to fish, so to speak. Or better, to yam?
On cooking day, in the tiny slice of kitchen in my tiny apartment, I learned from N how to prepare a yam and how to cook up a pot of yam porridge, a lesson that included stern reminders not to let the juice touch my skin other than on my hands (it is itchy) nor to touch my clothes (light-colored; the juice stains). I did both of those things. Oops.
I imagined the potatoes, the sweets, the onions, and the garlic breathing a collective sigh of relief that day.
4) Scotch bonnet or Habañero peppers
5) Sweet red pepper (red bell pepper)
7) Palm oil*
8) Dried ground shrimp
9) Dark leafy greens (optional)
10) Curry Powder (optional)
11) Fresh Ginger (optional)
12) Maggi cube (optional)
13) Dried fish or Stockfish (optional)
A note on ingredients:
Ingredients 1-8 are absolute necessities and depending upon who you talk to, so are 10 & 12. All of this depends on your preferences. We made the porridge the first time around with curry powder and the Maggi cube. Maggi is a bouillon cube essentially, that is also packed with MSG. I don’t know if I buy the MSG hype, but I’m not a huge fan of bouillon cubes, ever. It’s the same thing as Knorr and things like Aromat and can be found in cubed or powdered form. All of these are artificial flavor inhancers made from natural ingredients. Anyway, I don’t like them but omit them from a traditional dish and your average West African (and some throughout the Caribbean) will be ready to fight. They will tell you “it can’t work…” or some such. It can. I have on subsequent preparations substituted both the curry, which is not always my favorite thing, and the Maggi with double or triple the amount of freshly grated ginger. When I served it this way without informing my guests of the omissions, I was praised highly for the “very fresh taste” of my porridge. Try it both ways and you be the judge.
I consider the shredded greens or “leaf” essential. I suggest a green with a sturdier texture and stronger flavor that can stand up to the flavors you’re using. Additionally, because you will be shredding the greens you want to make sure to use something that won’t disintegrate into a soggy mess after being boiled for 15 minutes. Though plenty of people use spinach, I prefer collards. I think kale, beet greens, and maybe chard would be quite nice .
*Don’t use the palm oil in the picture if you can avoid it. It is refined, processed. Find the real deal usually sold in suspect packaging at an African grocery. It’s thick, pungent, orange red, and though it seems like it’d be an acquired taste it’s delicious and blends perfectly with the flavors of the dishes in which you use it. Sometimes it melds, sometimes it frames. A must.
Peel and cube the yam. Fill a bowl with cold water and place cubes in to soak while you prepare the vegetable puree for the sauce. You may wish to soak the yam a few times and add a bit of salt to the water, I recommend this if you didn’t have help choosing your yam and are unfamiliar, the bitterness is really not-so-nice.
While the yams are soaking, cut tomatoes, onion, and red bell pepper, into chunks and add to food processor, add scotch bonnet or habañero depending on the type of pepper you are using. Add garlic cloves and process ingredients into a smooth purée.
Wash and shred greens into a medium-fine chiffonade and set aside. Drain yams then rinse once more, place into a large pot and fill with water just to cover. Add 2 or 3 tbsp palm oil, cover pot, and bring yams just to a boil. Add the puree, cover pot, cook ten minutes more then stir and cook approximately five more minutes, covered.
If using dried fish, flake the equivalent of about ¼ cup and add at this time more if you like it, and I’ll admit it is pretty good.
If using curry powder and Maggi, grate approximately one tablespoon of fresh ginger, if replacing both the curry powder and Maggi with fresh ginger, grate approximately 3-4 tablespoons. Add approximately 2 tbsp curry powder (if using), ginger, 1 tbsp salt, 1 tsp dried shrimp, and 1 Maggi cube (if using) and stir well to disperse seasoning.
Cover the pot and cook over medium low heat for ten more minutes then add the shredded greens, stir to distribute, and allow the porridge to cook fifteen more minutes covered.
Serve porridge with avocado slices. I have also served it with a fried egg for a bit of additional protein but it’s not necessary, it’s a lot of food.
Herbal medicine stall in Coronation Market -- Kingston, Jamaica