Yam, igname, ñame, inhame… all rooted in various West African words: nyam, iyan that not only refer to the tuber itself, but can also mean food, or even to eat reflecting the importance of the vegetable to cultures throughout the region . In Jamaican the word for eat is nyam. No coincidences here. I have developed such an appreciation that I now swiftly correct anyone confusing them with Ipomoea batatas in all of their orange flesh-iness.
Yams, of the family Discoreaceae, are ugly and intriguing things that show up on plates throughout African Diaspora. They are part of a significant group of foods known variously as food, ground provisions, verdura, provisions (fr.), kuminda di tera (thanks to my Curaçao connection Jermain Ostiana for that) that include starchy fruits and root vegetables such as mandioca (cassava, yuca, mandioca), malanga (dasheen, eddoe, otoe), sweet potatoes (batata, boniato), plantains, breadfruit, and green (or unripe) bananas (guineos). Yams are ubiquitous throughout the African Diaspora of the Americas and the Caribbean, appearing in cooking pots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Guadeloupe, Martinique, etc. Yams were even eaten in the southern United States though orange sweet potatoes dominate the root vegetable scene there.
Brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans and their captors, yams were adapted quite easily to the climates of the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America that were so similar to the tropical regions of the yam belt in Western Africa. They, along with foods like ackee, and breadfruit, and, yes, pork became important high yield, nutritious food sources to feed the ever-growing enslaved (& European) populations in those regions.
There are hundreds of varieties of the tuber including Ghana yam, yellow yam, St. Vincent’s yam, soft yam all with different names depending upon what country you’re in. They can have cream-colored flesh, yellow, purple, white, or pinkish, which is (and should) be very hard and not yield to pressure when raw. When cooked they can be firm or have a creamy texture like boiled potatoes. The skin, most often a dirty brown color can be crusty or even hairy. Some varieties need to be soaked before cooking and they can have a slightly acrid taste. Many yam species are poisonous but still used for food in West Africa. In such cases they are soaked and very carefully prepared in order to leach the toxins from the yam. Preparation techniques can include pounding, fermenting, and drying along with the initial soaking. Those same chemicals responsible for higher levels of toxicity in some species are why you may experience a slight acrid taste but the yams you find in the market are just fine, but a good soak can’t hurt just to try and leach away that flavor. Yams are never eaten raw because they exude a fluid that when cut causes the skin to itch and leaves permanent brown stains on the clothing of unsuspecting and inexperienced cooks like me.
I am personally most familiar with Ghana, yellow, and soft yams, which isn’t saying much since if faced with a bowl filled with all three I could probably only really tell you with utter certainty which was the yellow yam for obvious reasons:
Yams are a traditional food of the Ashanti, the Yoruba, and especially the Igbo for whom it is the most important staple crop. Festivals are held to celebrate it in Nigeria and Ghana; anyone who has read Things Fall Apart has read of the Igbo New Yam Festival. And if we had any doubts at all that yams are inspirational…
Yams are prepared throughout western Africa most famously in the dish fufu, where they are pounded to a sticky mass then eaten as an accompaniment to soup. Dishes with the same or similar names show up throughout the Caribbean though often prepared with other tubers, but always using the same technique of mashing the root with seasonings or oil and serving to accompany a particular dish; in Cuba: fufu, the Dominican Republic: mangú, Puerto Rico: mofongo etc.* Most commonly they are boiled, sometimes along with other ground provisions as simple side dish to just about any meal, but from West Africa to Colombia, the tubers are eaten boiled, fried, or roasted; mashed or sliced.
*Cuban Fufu is made with ripe plantains and mofongo with green plaintains. Mangú is made from mashed green plantains, while West African style fufu can be made from plantains, mandioca, malanga, or yams. All of these dishes, whether or not they are made with other tubers, are all prepared in much the same way: mashed or pounded.
Herbal medicine stall in Coronation Market -- Kingston, Jamaica