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The History of Yams: From West Africa to Black American Sunday Dinners

By Marie Adams of Culture Travels Magazine

Did you know there is a difference between a sweet potato and a yam? I did not know either until I took a deep dive into the history of how sweet potatoes became a part of the African American dinner table. 

I’m guilty of using yams and sweet potatoes as interchangeable terms when referencing sweet potatoes. Growing up in Texas (with Alabama roots), sweet potatoes have been a staple dish in my household for Sunday dinners and holidays. Sweet potato pies have been my favorite dessert since I was a little girl. 

Yams in Black culture are often cut up into pieces, covered in sugar and spices, then baked in the oven. The smell of yams baking is a nostalgic feeling for Black households across America. 

The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Most Americans have never seen or tasted a yam. Surprising right? Sweet potatoes are sweet, oval-shaped, have a smooth texture with an orange flesh. Yams, often referred to as an elephant’s foot, is larger, shaped in unique ways and starchy, with white flesh. I never tasted a yam until I tried Nigeria’s egusi soup and fufu.. The viral TikTok trend of people trying egusi soup and fufu for the first time as, in fact, an African yam. It is an acquired taste that Americans were not familiar with.

My Uncle Bola, who lives in Houston and from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, was the first person to introduce me to African food. Anytime I visit Houston, I love trying the different dishes he chooses for my children and me. 

My first encounter with the yam was interesting. I expected it to have the flavor of mashed potatoes but found it was an interesting texture and taste. Yam is a hard flavor to describe however, they have a starchy taste to them. In America, I’ve seen it paired with egusi soup, but my favorite soup to eat it with is edikang ikong, popular in southern Nigeria. So, how did the African yam become mistaken for the American sweet potato?The Power of Community Support


Yams and The Trans-Atlantic

Yams were introduced to America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Our enslaved ancestors brought over their rich culture, agricultural knowledge and traditional food items such as the yam. In Southern states, yams became an important crop during slavery. However, due to the climate difference, yams were challenging to maintain as they thrived in tropical climates. 

Sweet potatoes were introduced to America by way of Central and South America, due to them being easily grown on U.S. soil. A staple crop in West Africa, the yam is valued for its versatility in cooking and nutritional content. 

In West African cuisine, yams are often used in dishes including fritters, stews, fries and soups. Slaves used their knowledge to cultivate yams and maintain a food supply for not only themselves, but their communities. Communal gardens known as provision grounds were where yams were planted. 

Farming techniques were passed down from generation to generation as a vital part of their diets and a symbol of cultural resilience. In many parts of Africa, the yam is celebrated in festivals such as the New Yam Festival by Nigeria’s Igbo tribe and the Te Za (Yam Festival) in Ghana. 

Enslaved Africans long separated from their homeland began to reference the sweet potato as a yam due to its similarities. That term was passed down through many generations, hence why many African Americans refer to the sweet potato as a yam.


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