Yam, True Yam

Dioscorea species

Also ñame (Spanish), igname (French)

(See alternative names under separate species)

In the tropical lands where yams grow, they offer more than sustenance; they intertwine with the mythology, medicine, religion, and history of the people who cultivate them. In the hot zones of the Old World, where many originated, they are as essential as corn was to the New World Indians who raised it.

In most of the United States, however, yams are odd nameless tubers—unless you grew up with them elsewhere and know their secrets. In 1999, the United States imported yams from 14 countries—many of which now have an increasing population here. What types arrive is dictated by the demands of newcomers from Jamaica, Nigeria, the Philippines, and a score of countries where yams—not potatoes—mean dinner. Yams that wind up in the NewYork—New Jersey area, where I live and lug them home, represent a tiny fraction of the tuber’s numerous forms. Franklin Martin, this country’s primary authority on the subject (who was kind enough to interrupt his active “retirement” to review my information), says that 60 Dioscorea species are edible and 10 are prominent.