During the past few years, sweet potato fries have become a standard option to the usual french fries. And as the sweet tuber has captured the imagination of today’s chefs in all kinds of new ways, diners are surprised to find sweet potatoes everywhere. Always sweet, but not cloyingly so, these spuds are amazingly versatile. You can accentuate the sweet by adding brown sugar, molasses and traditional pie spices, or you can contrast the sweet with chile or hot pepper sauce. You can round them into a savory side by using herbs like thyme and rosemary, or you can roast them with other root vegetables for an unexpectedly sweet bite. The options are endless.
The Confusion Ends Here
Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams
There are many reasons sweet potatoes are confused with yams. First, they are both sweet(ish). They look somewhat alike, and of course, sweet potatoes can be orange like yams. But a yam is not a sweet potato, and a sweet potato is not a yam. They’re not even related, though they both come from the New World. Supposedly, the naming confusion arose in the Old South. African slaves called sweet potatoes “nyami” because it reminded them of the root eaten in their home countries, and the term was eventually shortened to “yam.”
A yam is starchier and less sweet. Its flesh is pale with less beta carotene and it has a lower concentration of most nutrients and less fiber. Most are imported from the Caribbean.
Sweet potatoes are a part of holiday dinners in all kinds of cultures. Tzimmes, an Ashkenazi Jewish dish, is traditionally served at Rosh Hashanah. Carrots and dried fruits are usually a part of the stew and families have their own variations. In Mexico, candied sweet potatoes—camotes enmielados—are a favorite street snack and in the Yucatan region a special dessert is made with sweetened sweet potatoes and coconut. Fried sweet potato-filled empanadillas are a Spanish Christmas treat. And of course, here in the U.S., we have the controversial sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows.
How did that happen?
Well, according to Smithsonian, which celebrated the 100th birthday of the dish in 2017 (sorry about that, Ms. Mallow—we missed the party), a company called Angelus Marshmallows (which also made Cracker Jacks!) introduced commercially made marshmallows in 1907. But America wasn’t buying them. The company asked the founder of the Boston Cooking School magazine to come up with recipes that would entice people to buy marshmallows. She used them to make a fluffy, gooey browned topping for sweet potatoes and the rest is history.
Want to try a few dishes featuring these superfood-status starches? Check out our favorite sweet potato recipes here.