Sweet potatoes are common and popular here in Australia, yams are generally only to be found in specialist greengrocers. In some parts of the USA, I understand that sweet potatoes of the yellow/orange colour are popularly referred to as ‘yams,’ – it is said because African-American slaves of the colonial period found them to have many similarities with the real yams with which they were familiar. Sometimes, if there is no additional commentary, it can be difficult to determine which is intended in a particular recipe.
Botanically speaking, the yam is the common name of some plants from the family Dioscoreaceae, is native to Africa and Asia, and the sweet potato belongs to the family Convolvulaceae, and is native to the Americas.
The Australian newspaper, the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.) of October 4, 1886, in a column entitled A Course of Cookery, by a Mother has this to say about the vegetables:
SWEET POTATO. - One of the most popular vegetables in this country is the sweet potatoe. It can be baked, boiled, or even stewed as a fruit. To boil them use no salt, as it gives them a dark tinge. They are very good mashed with chopped eschalot and parsley; boiled plain with melted butter; or baked with meat. For tarts they can be boiled, mashed, and flavoured with lemon juice, lemon peel, and sugar, turned into a pie dish, and covered with short crust; also treated with sugar, nutmeg, lemon, and sweet spice, the same as pumpkin pie, they are very good.
THE YAM. -It is a great pity the yam is not more generally cultivated in the colonies. It grows well, and with very little trouble, and is far before many other vegetables in the matter of nutriment. In the South Sea Islands the natives live on yam from their infancy.
The best and pleasantest way to cook them is to bake them in the ashes. Lay them in the dull, red ashes, turning them occasionally till done, then scrape off the outside, break open the yam, and eat with a spoon and some fresh butter and salt. They are delicious for supper on a cold night. Boiling them quite spoils their flavour. The English potato, done in the same way, is far nicer than boiled.
Half a century later, another Australian newspaper, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW) of 13 July 1937, appeared to refer to sweet potatoes as yams. Or am I the one who is confused and is interpreting the article incorrectly. The article was in the Women’s Realm section, and was on cooking with yams and pumpkins. The author opines that “Natives of the South Sea Island and the Australian aborigines still cook yams in this fashion [roasting in their skins].” The South Sea Islands reference suggests sweet potatoes, does it not? For your decision and delectation, here are several of the ‘yam’ recipes from the article.
Sufficient boiled yams to make two cupfuls pulp, 2 eggs, 1 cupful milk, 1 tablespoonful flour, 1 teaspoonful salt, ¼ teaspoonful cinnamon.
Beat the yam pulp and rub through a coarse sieve. Beat the eggs with the flour and then add the salt, sugar, and cinnamon. Add the yam pulp and finally the milk a little at a time. Pour into a buttered pie-dish and bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes or until set. Cover with a thin layer of crushed peanuts and top with marshmallows cut in halves. Place in the oven and brown lightly. Serve hot or cold.
Baked Stuffed Yams.
Six medium-sized yams, 6 small white onions, milk and butter.
Peel and part-boil the yams in boiling salted water. Remove from the saucepan and dry them. Then from the centre of each cut a small round piece as large as the onion, and lay it aside. Put the onion in each potato with a teaspoonful of milk and butter. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne pepper and bake for 30 minutes or longer in a hot oven.
Six medium-sized yams, 1 oz butter, salt and pepper, one gill cream.
Prepare and peel the yams. Boil until tender in salted water. Drain and mash with the butter and seasonings. Mix in the cream and pour into individual fire-proof dishes. Brown in a hot oven and serve with grilled cutlets.
Baked Spiced Yams.
Four medium-sized yams, eight cloves, four pieces of garlic, melted dripping, parsley sauce.
Peel the yams and boil until half tender in salted water. Drain and coat with melted butter. Stick two cloves in each yam and a piece of garlic on a small skewer. Bake until tender in good beef dripping. Remove the cloves and garlic and dish on a hot dis. Coat with parsley sauce and serve with veal cutlets.
One cupful mashed yams, half cupful flour, two eggs, half teaspoonful salt, one teaspoonful baking powder.
Beat the eggs well. Then mix in the cooked yams and beat for five minutes. Add the flour, salt, and baking powder. Fry in tablespoonfuls in faintly-smoking fat. Serve with grilled bacon.