For a holiday party my friend, Rachel, requested I bring a yam casserole, “The kind with lots of marshmallows and brown sugar, so don’t make it too healthy Lila,” she said. As a kale-massaging, kombucha-brewing, holistic nutrition student at Bauman College, that’s not exactly the kind of dish I usually make. So I hit the Internet. I happened upon Paula Deen’s Ol’ No. 7 Yams, however, the recipe calls for 4 large sweet potatoes. Wait a minute I’m confused, yams and sweet potatoes are the same thing, right? I decide to resolve the yam vs. sweet potato dilemma.
I learned that in a typical American grocery store you are going to find one of the 400 varieties of sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas) that grace the produce section with smooth orange, brown, or purple skin. Even with the label “yam,” these blocky or tapered tubers are actually sweet potatoes. I was suprised to discover that in grandma’s candied yam recipe I would be as likely to find true yams (Dicomes genus) as durian, a pungent fruit from South East Asia. True yams are grown in Africa and the Caribbean. They are cylindrical in shape, have a rough and almost hairy exterior and taste earthy with minimal sweetness. Just to make this vegetable situation even more complicated, a sweet potato is not even a potato! Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family along with jicama, while conventional potatoes belong to the nightshade clan along with peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.
How did we get into this squishy orange mess?
When the orange variety of sweet potatoes was introduced to the US during the mid 20th century, the word “yam” was used as a marketing term to distinguish this variety from the white-fleshed sweet potato. “Yam” comes from the African word for the Dicomes genus, “nyami.” If you feel inspired to try one these “true yams” you’ll have to make your way to a specialty African or Asian grocery store.
The sweet potatoes we eat -- no matter what we call them -- are one of the oldest known vegetables. They have been consumed since prehistoric times and were even found in Peruvian caves dating back 10,000 years ago. (Encyclopedia of Healing Foods)
Sweet Potato, the Super Tuber
As a holistic nutrition student I am always looking to identify the health benefits of what I am eating and sweet potatoes happen to be quite a noteworthy vegetable. They are a great antioxidant boosting food with high levels of vitamin C and carotene. They are also an excellent source of B6, manganese, copper, biotin, pantothenic acid and dietary fiber. Animal studies have shown that these tubers can help stabilize blood sugar and improve insulin response, making them a helpful anti-diabetic food. (Encyclopedia of Healing Foods)
Most people only enjoy sweet potatoes a few times a year during the holiday season when they construct the perfect bite with turkey, cranberry sauce and a little bit of gravy. I eat sweet potatoes year around. This started two years ago when I went on an elimination diet where I cut out all grains. I was forced to refashion my usual breakfast of toast, cereal or oatmeal. Thus my sweet potato “oatmeal” was born. Instead of using oats as a base for my morning meal, I switched to using a roasted sweet potato (the Japanese variety is my favorite) mashed with coconut oil and topped with seasonal fruit, a nut butter of my choosing, a sprinkle of seeds and a dusting of cinnamon. This creation has revolutionized my mornings and allows me to start the day feeling nourished and grounded.
Sweet potatoes are now a staple in my diet because of their natural sweetness and versatility. I savor these root vegetables in my breakfast bowl, tucked into my favorite savory muffins and for dessert, as I inch further away from sugar. Hmmm...maybe Rachel would be open to some sweet potato fudge made with black beans, cocoa powder and just a little maple syrup.
Lila’s Sweet Potato Breakfast Bowl (Vegan and Gluten-free)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
- Scrub the sweet potatoes with a brush and pat dry.
- Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork 1-3 times. (So they don’t explode. I learned the hard way)
- Place the sweet potatoes on a pan lined with foil or parchment paper.
- Bake for 40 to 60 minutes until the sweet potatoes start to ooze or until tender.
- Let them cool and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Roasting the Sweet Potatoes
If you wake up hungry like I do, then I recommend pre-roasting several small sweet potatoes (any variety) for the week.
Recipe: Lila’s Sweet Potato Breakfast Bowl
- 1 roasted sweet potato
- 2 tsp coconut oil
- Reheat your roasted sweet potato in the microwave for 1 ½ minutes or steam for 5 minutes.
- Place your whole sweet potato in a bowl, mash with a fork and combine 2 tsp. coconut oil (I like to eat the skin, but if you prefer not to you can remove the skin at this point).
- Add toppings of your choosing and feel free to be creative!
- What's the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams? by Janet Rausa Fuller (epicurious.com)
- Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael T. Murray, Joseph Pizzorno, Lara Pizzorno