The Fresh Market in the Strawberry Hill Shopping Center has a confusing tuber section. One bin offers "garnet yams," another "organic yams," while a third bin contains "North Carolina grown sweet potatoes."
But in truth, all three bins contain sweet potatoes.
And November is the time for sweet potatoes. Whether starring as an overcooked mash abused by mini marshmallows or the velvety interior of a pie, sweet potatoes are a requisite ingredient for Thanksgiving dinner.
So why the confusion, since sweet potatoes are not even kissing kin to the yam?
Yams (Dioscoreaceae) are thought to have originated in Africa or Asia. Unlike sweet potatoes, yams must be cooked to be safe. These fleshy tubers with a dark, almost black, hairy exterior resemble the love child of a coconut and a yucca, and can grow as long as 5 feet. Yams are the primary ingredient of Ghanaian fufu, a popular dish similar in consistency to Hawaiian poi.
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), on the other hand, originated here in the Americas and have a smooth, easy-to-peel skin with an interior flesh ranging from white to orange. This variation in interior color led the USDA to allow the orange-colored sweet potatoes to be incorrectly labeled yams so the white flesh could remain a sweet potato. However, some say that renaming the American sweet potato began long before the USDA, and that enslaved Africans called this tuber a yam as early as colonial times.
Both African and Asian yams as well as Asian sweet potatoes, such as the Korean sweet potato, are available at Super G Mart (7323 E. Independence Blvd.).
Sweet potatoes are North Carolina's official vegetable. More sweet potatoes are grown in North Carolina than any other state. Locally grown sweet potatoes are available at area farmers markets, including the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market, and at most grocery stores. Popular varieties include Beauregard, Carolina Ruby, Covington, Garnet, and Jewel. All of these have orange or reddish flesh. Local sweet potatoes are also featured on area restaurant menus as raviolis, gnocchi, winter root vegetables medleys, fries, pies, dessert mousse, even vodka. Covington, a North Carolina distillery, uses sweet potatoes to make its vodka.
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