Yams are a tuber vegetable of African origin and represent a large percentage of commodity crops in several African Countries. It is one of the first cultivated plants of the continent and remains one of the most expensive vegetables to grow.
Yams are cultivated at the beginning of the rainy season in row of mounds. The leaves grow in long vines and are supported by wooden stakes placed by each mound by the farmer. The average life cycle of a yam from planting to harvesting is about 9 months with only one tuber per mound harvested at the end of the planting season. The harvesting is usually celebrated with a traditional new yam festival with the first batch of fresh yam offered to the ancestors with thanks for a great planting season and the other yams being distributed to the community.
There are 2 main yams that are common in African cooking, white yams and water yams. They both have a brown, firm and rough exterior. The insides or the “flesh” of the white yam is white and firm while the water yam’s flesh is white and watery. The white yam is a very versatile vegetable as it can be boiled, roasted, pounded, baked, fried, dried and smoked. The water yam is also very versatile and it is known primarily for its stew/soup thickening properties (Ikokere-Western Nigeria).
The taste of the white yam is starchy and the consistency is typically dry which is why it is usually served with a flavorful accompaniment like stew or soups. It is a nutritionally dense vegetable that is both healthy and delicious when properly prepared. Examples of African yam dishes include yam salad, mashed yam, pounded yam (Fufu), yam pottage (Asaro), fried yam (Dundu), boiled yam and Amala to name a few.
Yams are widely available for sale in most grocery stores, farmers and African markets. Choose yams that are firm to the touch and with the skin intact. Soft yams and yams with sprouts are indicative of some spoilage and should not be chosen. They must be stored in a cool dry area away from direct sunlight. The tubers will last in a proper environment for up to 6 weeks.
Tip to remember when working with yams; be careful to keep the lightly slimy liquid for the yam away from bare skin as it will cause irritation and severe itching. If the liquid gets on skin, application of cooking oil on the skin has been proven to work.