A yam is a yam is a yam? Nope. What Americans know as “yams” are actually just variants of sweet potatoes. About the only thing our yams have in common with true yams is that they both grow underground — the comparison pretty much stops there. True yams have a nutty, buttery flavor and a slippery, sticky texture; American “yams” are sweet and decidedly dry. True yams are squat, not long, and they look like they’re covered with bark. When you cut them open, you’ll be greeted with a speckled, tan interior rather than a smooth orange-pink hue.
The slipperiness of true yams makes them ideal for making doughy breads, filling custards, and thick porridges. They’re also used to make fritters in the regions where yams are staple crops…which is nearly everywhere but here. You may find true yams labeled “Chinese yams” (they’re quite popular in Asia) or “ñame root” (they’re widely cultivated in Latin countries, too). Or you might simply find them labeled “yams” if you’re in a market that caters to Caribbean, African, or Oceanic shoppers. (Oceania refers to the islands scattered throughout the tropical Pacific Ocean, like New Zealand and Polynesia and the Philippines and all those other places most of us are aching to visit.)
If you do happen to come across true yams, snap one up! Choose a yam that’s firm and doesn’t have any cracks, splits, or soft spots on the skin. Shriveled, wrinkled yams are past their prime — pass them up for fuller, less-wrinkled young yams. To peel them, either use a sturdy vegetable peeler, a sharp knife, or a combination of the two. Remove all skin and cut the yams into slices or cubes or wedges, depending on how you want to use them. (Tip: true yams can be used much like American yams.)
About 3 cups grated yam (peel it first!)
About 1 1/2 cups grated cotija cheese
1 cup coconut milk
1 T. palm sugar OR maple syrup (with its tropical taste, the palm sugar blends better with the yam and coconut; you can find palm sugar in the Thai section of well-stocked markets or in Asian markets)
1 tsp. sea salt
Preheat oven to 400F. Grease an 8×8 glass baking dish and set aside.
Mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl, then pour into the pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown. The thinbread will be nutty, rich, and slightly sweet; I enjoyed it for breakfast and ate it for snacks. Believe me, this will probably be one of the most unique dishes you’ve ever made!