Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

West African Staple Food - Yams {With Recipe for Nigerian Porridge}

Remember when I thought yams were the same as sweet potatoes? I picked up a piece of a yam at a West African grocery while visiting in Toronto to bring home and taste: in size, texture and taste, they are nothing like sweet potatoes. The piece of yam was approximately 7 inches long, and only a fraction of a whole that would have been too big to fit in my suitcase. Being a staple food of West Africa, and featuring in various recipes, I was lucky to find more pieces of yam for sale at a local independent grocery market. 

You can watch a video that shows and describes the differences between sweet potatoes and yam here.

Yams for sale at market, Nigeria
West Africa produces 94% of the world's yams, which are eaten in South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and of course Africa. It is a major staple food in West Africa, an important source of income to farmers, and plays a cultural role in some fertility and marriage ceremonies. Capable of being stored for up to six months without refrigeration, they are often important for survival. Yams are so important that there is an annual festival with festivities throughout West Africa to celebrate its harvest.  

Wholesale yam market, Ghana
These root vegetables are rich in vitamin C and are the main source of carbohydrates in most of West Africa. They can be boiled, roasted, baked, fried, or even dried and milled into flour. They are most often used for fufu, an accompaniment that is served with many West African dishes. Yam fufu, also known as pounded yam, is made with yams that are boiled and pounded with large mortar and pestle. 

Though we will be trying our hands at making traditional fufu, I thought our first yam dish would be a stew, one of many soup/stew recipes eaten throughout West Africa.

Asaro is a traditional Yoruba dish from Nigeria. It is not what we would consider porridge, but more of a stew. Boiled yam with seasonings and dried fish. This dish features many of the most commonly used ingredients and seasonings in West African dishes. I debated whether to include this recipe, because not one of us liked it. We were worried we wouldn't care for the sauce, what with the dried fish and palm oil, but we liked that part. We were very grateful for the sauce, because it was the yam we didn't care for. It was just too starchy for us. I'm including this recipe because our taste buds do not reflect every one else's, and part of a cultural exploration for us is to expose ourselves to textures and seasonings we wouldn't normally come across. Which is also why this won't be our last recipe with yams this year, though this will probably have been our last boiled yam dish.

A few notes on the ingredients:

Yams can be a bit dirty (similarly to potatoes) and are difficult to peel. I started off by peeling half of the yam, and after a few near misses, finally cut myself :). Better to cut the yam in large slices, and peel those smaller pieces.  You'll likely want to clean your knife and cutting board after peeling, and I suggest rinsing your cut pieces of yam as well.

Palm oil is thick oil, and living in our less than warm house, was solid in this glass bottle. When buying palm oil, if it's solid in the store, expect it to remain so unless heated. You'll need to warm it up to get it out of the bottle. In that case, if possible, I recommend buying a container with a wide opening. Even after warming the oil by putting the top half of the bottle in nearly boiling water for 30 minutes, I had to scoop out most of the oil with the handle of a long spoon. This oil is also messy (or maybe that's just me) and would definitely stain cloth. The recipe below is based on two slightly varying recipes for Asaro, and one major difference is how much palm oil to include. One recipe calls for 3 cups, the other just notes "to color". I was only able to get 1 cup of oil out of the bottle, so that's how much I used. 

Bouillon cubes (especially Maggi brand) are used to season most savory dishes in West Africa - whether at home, at street stands, and in most restaurants. The recipes I came across for Asaro don't specify what type of bouillon, though I think crayfish/shrimp bouillon is often used. I couldn't find any, so used beef bouillon. I can't say I'm a fan of using bouillon cubes, especially with the salt and MSG content, but I couldn't think of a substitution. 

Ground crayfish is called for in this recipe - I still had dried shrimp left from our Chinese recipes, and minced a tablespoon worth of those. I think you can find ground crayfish in Asian groceries, which I'll have to re-explore with new eyes and recipes in mind. 

Asaro: Nigerian Yam Porridge

Recipe adapted from All Nigerian Recipes & Dobby's Signature
Serves 4 

  • 1 kg yam (or an approximately 7" long piece)
  • 1/2 large red onion, finely diced
  • Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 smoked or dried fish (titus or mackerel) 
  • 2 bouillon cubes
  • 4 oz spinach leaves (our substitute to pumpkin leaves - who knew those were edible?)
  • 1 cup palm oil
  • 1 tbsp powdered crayfish (or minced dried shrimp)
1. Peel and cut yam into large small chunks. Rinse and put in large pot with red onion. Add enough water to cover the yams by nearly one inch. Bring to a boil on medium high heat.

2. When the water comes to a boil, add cayenne, bouillon cubes and dry fish. Cook until yam is softened, 20-30 minutes. Once softened, mash a few of the yams to thicken the sauce. 

3. Add the palm oil and crayfish powder, and cook for 5 more minutes.

4. Add spinach, and cook for a few minutes to wilt. 

Serve hot. We made instant fufu to go with it. 

We started off eating with our right hand then quickly reverted to using our forks (in Africa, eat with your right, never your left, which is meant for cleaning purposes - you know, after using the bathroom).


  1. This was so fun to read. I love your candid nature, and appreciated the fact that even though you didn't care for the yam, you are willing to try it again in another form. I am learning so much through your explorations.

    1. Thank you Phyllis, I'm learning so much myself! Hopefully, the yam will taste better next time :)

  2. The yams are enormous and very woody looking (like they have bark on the outside of them). I too thought they were the same as sweet potatoes.

    1. Bark is a perfect description of the outside - rather tricky to peel!


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