To most of us, the yam is a common vegetable, ubiquitous as some glistening deep orange dish at our holiday tables. However, this tuber, whose meat comes in a variety of colors ranging from white to violet, is actually a revered and ancient source of sustenance that has great cultural importance, as our most recent contributor explores.
The yam thrives in humid, tropical environments in four continents, including Africa. In fact, in West Africa the starchy tuber is a critical food staple, providing more than 200 calories per person per day for more than 150 million people. It can be prepared in many ways and is available all year round. Some varieties can even be stored for up to six months, which is important for food security.
It also provides a vital source of income for farmers with limited resources. It is planted in dirt mounds or ridges, and labor-intensive harvesting requires workers to dig carefully into the mounds of soil to extract the tuber without damaging it. Despite these arduous circumstances, more than 95 percent of the world’s yam crop is harvested in West Africa, and Nigeria leads as the world’s largest producer. It’s no wonder that yam festivals abound in Nigeria, during which participants give thanks and celebrate.
Additionally, yams provide an edible link to history. In his essay “From Yoruba to New Orleans: The Divine Yam”, Kiel Adrian Scott delves into the roles yams have played through the years, from multiple birth phenomenon in Nigeria and providing a taste of home for those taken to a new land to connecting Kiel with his cultural identity. While most common dishes involve the yam being boiled, fried, and roasted, Kiel and his own twin brother prefer to eat it in the form of a baked pie. Read his thoughts for yourself while trying out the recipe for Cara’s Sweet Potato Pies that Kiel’s mother bakes every year.