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Yams vs. Sweet potatoes

This may be silly, but it makes me nuts when stores put those orange yams on their shelves and call them sweet potatoes. They are two different root vegetables and I wish they would get it right. Plus, it is almost impossible to get real sweet potatoes at the grocery store. Is this a peeve for anyone else??

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  1. Not a peeve for me, but I think you have it backwards. "Yams" are really a variety of sweet potato. I cannot find "real yams' except at ethnic grocery stores, but both light and dark sweet potatoes are at most supermarkets. The darker/reddish ones are labeled yams, but are a variety of sweet potato.

    1. I thought the same as you did until I did some research. The orange "yams" you see are in fact a type of sweet potato. To continue on with what Alan48 said, real yams are pretty big and you won't find them in standard "Anglo" stores. But in my store you can always find the pale, light yellow fleshed one that you are calling a "real" sweet potato.

      1 Reply
      1. re: escondido123

        Thank you both! I love those jersey sweets!

      2. I love Japanese sweets. Does anyone know if this is a true sweet potato or a yam?

        2 Replies
        1. re: sueatmo

          They are sweet potatoes - Ipomoea batatas

          Same goes for the purple (Okinawa) ones, and the white and red ones sold in Korean markets.

          There are a lot more cultivars that the 2 that are common in US markets

          Japanese 'mountain yam' is something quite different.

          1. re: paulj

            Thanks! I really like the yellow ones.

        2. Depending on the store, grocers here in L.A. will differentiate between sweet potato varieties by referring to the dark red ones as "Garnet Yams" or "Garnet Sweet Potatoes". As escondido123 says, they are not true yams at all. I have found a kind of true yam, the football-sized white-fleshed ones, at some Latino markets, especially ones catering largely to Cubans. You need a good, heavy-bladed knife to cut them into cooking-sized chunks, but they're delicious and very sweet.

          1. Actually, they're both sweet potatoes. For example, if you looked at a can of yams, the fine print on the label will state they're sweet potates. "YAM.... sweet potato".

            The Yam refers to a brand name/cultivar of a sweet potato grown in Louisiana.

            A Navel orange is still an orange, but a special cultivar of an orange.

            1 Reply
            1. re: dave_c

              Hi. Just for the sake of sharing information: Sweet potatoes are of the dicot class. Yams belong to the monocot class. They are two distinct plants/vegetables and not just a cultivar. Here in the U.S., they started calling the orange variety of sweet potato yams to distinguish them from the pale sweet potatoes. However, they're not true yams. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the label "yam" always be accompanied by "sweetpotato."


            2. If I'm not mistaken, they're interchangeable in recipes, so it's mostly a botanical issue anyway.

              1 Reply
              1. re: sunshine842

                The "yam" (sweet potato) is interchangeable with the regular sweet potato, but the true yam is not. It is much more fiberous, and as pointed out above, a different plant.

              2. Before I go on a search in my are to find this true yam, can anyone tell me if there is a difference in flavor (in it's plain, unadulterated form). I'm really curious!

                2 Replies
                1. re: hubbagrubba

                  describes the true yam (at least the most common African variety) as being dry and starchy.

                  1. re: paulj

                    Like this the best - a little color to it, and the palest of yellow.

                2. To recap, the yam and the sweet potato are completely different animals. They do not look alike or taste alike and are not interchangeable. All "yams" found in traditional US grocery stores are actually sweet potatoes (of which there are many colors/varieties). As said already here, you can sometimes finds real yams in ethnic stores and they are very large, and are white and starchy inside.

                  18 Replies
                  1. re: sandylc

                    Here in Chile, I wish I could find ANY yam or sweet potato that is yellow/orange in color. There is a vegetable called camote, which has white flesh, and is a sweet potato I suppose, but is not a very integral sort of vegetable to the local cuisine. Some special shops that sell Peruvian products sell yams/sweet potatoes (per explanations I guess they are sweet potatoes). In the US, you have such incredible variety, even in the "regular" supermarkets. Don't knock it.

                    1. re: Wawsanham

                      Chilean food is quite interesting to me. I'm wondering in what part of Chile you live, if you care to say. I hope to visit Chile someday.

                      Many here in U.S. (Virginia) do like the 'typical' saturated-color-of-yellow, almost a bright darkish yellow sweet potato but I find it so mushy when even baked. You don't have to press a fork into it very hard to mash it, even after baking, which usually takes half the time as another variety.

                      In the local supermarkets here, there are 'maybe' two choices of sweet potatoes, usually one. We do go to an ethnic market where we can purchase many different yams, and they even have frozen prepped yams.

                      The grass is always greener :-))

                      1. re: Rella

                        I live in Santiago (the capital and biggest city). Yes, I like Chilean food a lot. I know of many Americans, in particular, who don't care for most of it too much mostly because they are expecting something, or want something, with stronger, perhaps bolder and spicier flavors. I suppose Chilean food could be refered to as wholesome or hearty in general.

                      2. re: Wawsanham

                        No knocking it here. I love sweet potatoes! I love the variety available to me here. Just trying to emphasize that they are NOT yams, despite the determination of many to call them that.

                        1. re: sandylc

                          Seems that half the posts in this thread make the point that a yam is not a true yam. But the distinction is rather academic. Most of us have to live with the American produce names, where sweet potatoes and garnet yams are side by side. The true yam, if the store carries it at all, is in a tropical root vegetable section, with yuca and jicama.

                          We could also make a big deal about the fact that the sweet potato is NOT a potato.

                          1. re: paulj

                            Not only is a "yam" not a "true" yam, it isn't one at all. I have never called sweet potatoes yams and never will.

                            "We could also make a big deal about the fact that the sweet potato is NOT a potato."

                            Good point! Then we could go after people from Ohio, etc., who call green bell peppers "mangoes". There's a fun one!

                            1. re: sandylc

                              Good points. I was also under the impression that it has to do with regionalism/dialect. Some regions say "yam" for what is called "sweet potato" in another place. This happens with a lot of words, esp. foods.

                              1. re: Wawsanham

                                and having lived in several regions of the US, I agree with you.

                                1. re: Wawsanham

                                  Thank goodness somebody understands the problem-- it's a language issue!

                                  Different things go by the name "yam" in different parts of the English-speaking world. People who call some type of sweet potato a yam (in areas where this is the custom) are not mistaken, just using the language the way it is spoken in their area.

                                  For even more confusion, in India (and possibly other areas) there is a big veg which is round-- about the size of a large dinner plate-- and several inches thick, which is called a "yam". Do a Google image search on "elephant foot yam" to see what they look like.

                                2. re: sandylc

                                  Yep, born in Ohio - my relatives still refer to green bell peppers as mangoes. I've posted about this before, so that's all I'm adding here :-))

                                  1. re: Rella

                                    what part of ohio? im not contesting you, just curious. because i have lived in ohio all my life and have never heard of green bell peppers called mangoes haha. im from south eastern ohio, near wheeling west virginia, and currently live in canton.

                                    1. re: charles_sills

                                      Gee, I think my reply got lost.
                                      I was born about 80 miles south of Wheeling, across the river from Parkersburg, WV, in a town south of Marietta, Ohio, Belpre, Ohio.

                                      I can't recall the chowhound thread that we discussed this previously, but there were others in the vicinity and Indiana.

                                      1. re: Rella

                                        my grandmother near Fort Wayne called them mangoes. Confused the daylights out of me the first time I ever saw a true mango.

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          I have thought in my family's case, it might have been a family 'thang' carried over from ancestorial ships a few centuries previous, as some immigrants tend to not venture too far inland/west; but it is probably no greater reason than there are many immigrants into the same area that created the name and it just caught on for many.

                                          It's colorful to me, in that when I do use them, I do think of the ancestors. I'm a genealogist a heart.

                              2. re: Wawsanham

                                I wonder if the sweet orange variety(s) is even that common in Peru, the country of origin of this species. Maybe it is a variety that was developed in the USA to suit American tastes and recipes. Many in the USA can only fix the candied Thanksgiving dish.

                                Japanese and Korean varieties tend to be drier, and more savory than sweet, and seem to be more suited to use in tempura.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  I have had what is refered to as a "Peruvian yam/sweet potato" (camote peruano) in Chile. It tasted like the sweet potato/yam sold in "regular" supermarkets in the US that has an orange colored flesh. At least as far as my memory serves me (I lived in the US until 1991). Sweet food from Peru would not surprise me as they do have some very sweet dishes.

                                  1. re: Wawsanham

                                    article, in Spanish, on camote in Peru.

                                    It says that there are more than 2000 varieties in Peru. It doesn't say how are many grown commercially.

                                    It's not very well known in Ecuador (e.g. cookbooks, blogs) even though there are native varieties

                                    Another Spanish word for it is 'batata'

                                    claims that the more tropical varieties are sweeter.

                            2. As usual FoodTimeLine has the fullest discussion of terminology and history.
                              Under the topic of Sweet Potato Pie it discusses the movement of the Caribbean 'batata' to the Spanish 'patata' (with some Quechua 'papa' thrown in) to the English 'potato'. The English at one time distinguished between the 'Spanish potato' ('sweet') and 'Virginia potato' (white, or Irish).

                              The overlap with the African yam, occurred originally in Africa itself, where the New World import was called by the same name as their native yam, and then later in the USA 1930s with a marketing campaign.

                              Confused? Read the link and become more so.