Convolvulus coins, and a history lesson to boot

Before I can say anything else about sweet potatoes, I have no choice but to shock you with the following statement: sweet potatoes and yams are not the same thing.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the sweet potato is “the starchy tuber of a vine of the convolvulus and morning glory family.” It’s not even related to the ordinary meat-and-potatoes potato. Instead, it’s the descendent of a wild plant that seems to have originated in South America and then spread West to the tropics and North to Native American communities. The first European to taste a sweet potato would have been Columbus, in Haiti in 1492. Spanish explorers brought it to China in the 16th century, and it eventually reached Japan in the early 18th century.

The yam is “an edible tuber of plants of the genus Dioscorea.” Dioscorea! That’s a completely different word (and category) than “convolvulus”! The yam is native to Africa, and though it still grows underground, it’s a very different kind of tuber: raw yams contain the bitter, toxic substance discorine, and cooked yams are “starchy and bland, sometimes slightly sweet.” When Europeans introduced yams as a solution to the potato blights of the 1840s, they grew successfully but no one would eat them. They’re still widely eaten in regions like Nigeria and Fiji, but today yams are also used to produce steroids and fish poisons. Be glad you’re eating sweet potatoes.

When you go to the market, you’ll see long, funny-looking roots labeled either “Sweet potatoes” or “Yams.” They’re sweet potatoes. Even if they’re labeled “Garnet yams,” they’re sweet potatoes, and (if you ask me) they’re the richest, sweetest variety of sweet potatoes. If you want to, you can still call them yams. I won’t be secretly upset with you. I’m not trying to be a stickler about terminology. I’m just trying to give you some useless information and then tell you to cook a recipe. So, go do it.

Sweet Potato Coins with Lime and Cilantro

Active time: 15 minutes. Actual time: 40 minutes. Serves four.

Ingredients:

3 large sweet potatoes, preferably the ones labeled “Garnet yams”

4 tbsp butter

about 2 cups water

juice from 1/2 lime

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Process:

(1) Peel the sweet potatoes and chop them into 1/4-inch thick slices (so they resemble “coins” of different sizes). Layer the slices closely in a large (10- or 12-inch) skillet or saucepan, and pour just enough water into the pan to almost reach the top of the layered potatoes. Heat the skillet on your stove-top over medium-high heat until the water begins to boil, and then cover the pan and turn the heat down to low.

(2) After 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are beginning to be tender. If they are, pour out all the water except for 1/2 cup or so, and add the butter to the pan, as well as a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover the pan again.

(3) After another 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are fully tender and if most of the water and butter have been absorbed. If not, cook with the cover removed until the water and butter reduce into a nice glaze. When ready, remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the lime juice over the potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top the potatoes with the chopped cilantro. Serve, and enjoy—and make sure your guests know they’re eating sweet potatoes.Before I can say anything else about sweet potatoes, I have no choice but to shock you with the following statement: sweet potatoes and yams are not the same thing.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the sweet potato is “the starchy tuber of a vine of the convolvulus and morning glory family.” It’s not even related to the ordinary meat-and-potatoes potato. Instead, it’s the descendent of a wild plant that seems to have originated in South America and then spread West to the tropics and North to Native American communities. The first European to taste a sweet potato would have been Columbus, in Haiti in 1492. Spanish explorers brought it to China in the 16th century, and it eventually reached Japan in the early 18th century.

The yam is “an edible tuber of plants of the genus Dioscorea.” Dioscorea! That’s a completely different word (and category) than “convolvulus”! The yam is native to Africa, and though it still grows underground, it’s a very different kind of tuber: raw yams contain the bitter, toxic substance discorine, and cooked yams are “starchy and bland, sometimes slightly sweet.” When Europeans introduced yams as a solution to the potato blights of the 1840s, they grew successfully but no one would eat them. They’re still widely eaten in regions like Nigeria and Fiji, but today yams are also used to produce steroids and fish poisons. Be glad you’re eating sweet potatoes.

When you go to the market, you’ll see long, funny-looking roots labeled either “Sweet potatoes” or “Yams.” They’re sweet potatoes. Even if they’re labeled “Garnet yams,” they’re sweet potatoes, and (if you ask me) they’re the richest, sweetest variety of sweet potatoes. If you want to, you can still call them yams. I won’t be secretly upset with you. I’m not trying to be a stickler about terminology. I’m just trying to give you some useless information and then tell you to cook a recipe. So, go do it.

Sweet Potato Coins with Lime and Cilantro

Active time: 15 minutes. Actual time: 40 minutes. Serves four.

Ingredients:

3 large sweet potatoes, preferably the ones labeled “Garnet yams”

4 tbsp butter

about 2 cups water

juice from 1/2 lime

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Process:

(1) Peel the sweet potatoes and chop them into 1/4-inch thick slices (so they resemble “coins” of different sizes). Layer the slices closely in a large (10- or 12-inch) skillet or saucepan, and pour just enough water into the pan to almost reach the top of the layered potatoes. Heat the skillet on your stove-top over medium-high heat until the water begins to boil, and then cover the pan and turn the heat down to low.

(2) After 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are beginning to be tender. If they are, pour out all the water except for 1/2 cup or so, and add the butter to the pan, as well as a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover the pan again.

(3) After another 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are fully tender and if most of the water and butter have been absorbed. If not, cook with the cover removed until the water and butter reduce into a nice glaze. When ready, remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the lime juice over the potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top the potatoes with the chopped cilantro. Serve, and enjoy—and make sure your guests know they’re eating sweet potatoes.It’s not even related to the ordinary meat-and-potatoes potato. Instead, it’s the descendent of a wild plant that seems to have originated in South America and then spread West to the tropics and North to Native American communities. The first European to taste a sweet potato would have been Columbus, in Haiti in 1492. Spanish explorers brought it to China in the 16th century, and it eventually reached Japan in the early 18th century.

The yam is “an edible tuber of plants of the genus Dioscorea.” Dioscorea! That’s a completely different word (and category) than “convolvulus”! The yam is native to Africa, and though it still grows underground, it’s a very different kind of tuber: raw yams contain the bitter, toxic substance discorine, and cooked yams are “starchy and bland, sometimes slightly sweet.” When Europeans introduced yams as a solution to the potato blights of the 1840s, they grew successfully but no one would eat them. They’re still widely eaten in regions like Nigeria and Fiji, but today yams are also used to produce steroids and fish poisons. Be glad you’re eating sweet potatoes.

When you go to the market, you’ll see long, funny-looking roots labeled either “Sweet potatoes” or “Yams.” They’re sweet potatoes. Even if they’re labeled “Garnet yams,” they’re sweet potatoes, and (if you ask me) they’re the richest, sweetest variety of sweet potatoes. If you want to, you can still call them yams. I won’t be secretly upset with you. I’m not trying to be a stickler about terminology. I’m just trying to give you some useless information and then tell you to cook a recipe. So, go do it.

Sweet Potato Coins with Lime and Cilantro

Active time: 15 minutes. Actual time: 40 minutes. Serves four.

Ingredients:

3 large sweet potatoes, preferably the ones labeled “Garnet yams”

4 tbsp butter

about 2 cups water

juice from 1/2 lime

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Process:

(1) Peel the sweet potatoes and chop them into 1/4-inch thick slices (so they resemble “coins” of different sizes). Layer the slices closely in a large (10- or 12-inch) skillet or saucepan, and pour just enough water into the pan to almost reach the top of the layered potatoes. Heat the skillet on your stove-top over medium-high heat until the water begins to boil, and then cover the pan and turn the heat down to low.

(2) After 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are beginning to be tender. If they are, pour out all the water except for 1/2 cup or so, and add the butter to the pan, as well as a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover the pan again.

(3) After another 10 minutes, check if the potatoes are fully tender and if most of the water and butter have been absorbed. If not, cook with the cover removed until the water and butter reduce into a nice glaze. When ready, remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the lime juice over the potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top the potatoes with the chopped cilantro. Serve, and enjoy—and make sure your guests know they’re eating sweet potatoes.

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