|These are NOT yams.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi* isn't a foodie read per se. But it was a book that I devoured in two sittings and it reminded me that I have always wanted to research and understand the difference between a sweet potato and a yam.
On the Page
This is a wildly impressive undertaking for a debut novel. It's beautiful, visceral; it makes you want to squeeze your eyes shut against the ugliness while simultaneously compelling you to keep turning pages. If I had to distill it into one sentence, I would say: Each chapter illustrates the impact of slavery with a complicated relationship between slavers and slaves. And - surprise! - it's not just divided by white and black. This is an incredible, horrific look at history, colonialism, and slavery from Ghana to America, spanning nearly 300 years and many, many generations.
Ghana in the 1700s. Half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born to different mothers in different villages. After being abused her entire life by her step-mother (though she thinks that is her actual mother), Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives comfortably in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. She and her husband have a mixed-race child who kicks off that lineage. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned in the same castle's dungeons, sold into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped to America where that family line is raised in slavery.
That's as simplified an explanation as I can give. It's complicated. And it's ugly. There's physical abuse. There's sexual abuse. But no single character is good or bad. And it's those nuances of humanity that grip you in its brutal reality and make you read every last word that Gyasi wrote. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any future works by her. She's a remarkably talented writer.
On the Plate
Yams are mentioned throughout the book. In fact the story opens with a fire that devastates the yam crop of the family. Yams are not just a food but a currency; they have a value in trade. They are also a unit of measurement in both weight and size.
Now I know that yams and sweet potatoes are different, but I definitely couldn't explain how. So, I did some research to finally figure it out. And it turns out: I may never have had a true yam.
Most of that confusion stems of US grocery stores and markets using the names interchangeably. They are both the tuberous root of a flowering plant, but that's it.
Actual yams are native to Africa and Asia and are related to lilies. They range in size as some can be five feet long and have a cylindrical shape. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier and drier. To find an actual yam, you might have to check in international and specialty markets.
Sweet potatoes come from the morning glory family and are more elongated with tapered ends. Skin color runs the gamut from white to yellow, red to brown. I have even had Hawaiian sweet potatoes that are purple on the inside.
What I learned is that almost everything you are going to find in a conventional grocery store here, in America, is actually a sweet potato. What they are calling a yam is a soft sweet potato with copper-y skin and orange flesh. What they are calling a sweet potato is a firm sweet potato with golden skin and more pale flesh. The latter says firm and slightly waxy after cooking while the former transforms into something sweet, smooth, and fluffy. What a revelation! Now you'll know what to pick...for different recipes.
yam = soft and sweet
sweet potato = firm and starchy
Here are some of the ways I've used sweet potatoes in my kitchen...if I can locate any true yams, I'll post a recipe.
Here's what everyone else read in April 2018: here.