When I visit Canadian farmer’s markets in the fall, I’m sure to find an abundance of succulent orange yams. I imagined that I would be longing for this buttery treat now that I am living in Costa Rica. I was wrong. I found a tropical sweet potato substitute, the purple yam.
My Bribri friends introduced me to this yam substitute (called tu in Bribri, ñampi in Spanish, and Disocorea alata in Latin). Just as in Canada, yams are harvested here in the fall. Although purple yams don’t quite have the same texture or flavour of orange yams, both varieties are used in similar ways. I’ve eaten purple yam soup, fried yams, mashed yams, and, my favourite, boiled yams. Purple yams have a starchy texture similar to a yellow russet potato. Unlike the unique sweetness of an orange yam, the purple variety tastes quite simple, with slightly more of a kick than a standard potato.
The purple yam, of asian origin, is widely cultivated in the Costa Rican Caribbean and in other regions of the world, including the southern United States. Spanish and Portuguese traders likely introduced this edible tuber to the Americas over five centuries ago. Purple yams are hearty vines that anyone could plant. Last May, I dug a hole near the base of a dead tree trunk and buried the purple yam pictured above. Now, this vine is taller than me and its roots are almost ready to harvest.
Because of how quickly purple yams flourish in tropical humid climates, Florida farmers deem them weeds. Where I’m living, elders tell me their grandkids don’t want anything to do with purple yams and in the past two weeks I’ve received over 9 kilograms of yams as gifts, probably because nobody else wants them! If young people stop eating purple yams will they be considered weeds in Costa Rica too? I hope not. In the Bribri Territory, this purple side dish brings variety and nutrients to a diet that is otherwise primarily meat, bananas and white rice. Whether you love unique foods or want to help eliminate a Florida invasive, when in Tropical America, don’t be afraid to eat some weeds.