The One Ingredient That’s Essential to Much of Nigeria’s Cuisine

Distinct from other yams and their sweet potato cousins, the West African tuber, with its large size and distinct color (brown bark with white/yellow flesh) is a key ingredient in many dishes throughout Nigeria. While it’s grown throughout Africa, Nigeria remains the largest producer–over 37 million tons, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

A Melting Pot

Aside from its cultural and economic significance, the single tuber and its versatility are the base for many Nigerian staples.

Pounded Yam

Known as Iyan by the Yoruba people, this dish is a favorite for parties, weddings, and special occasions. The tubers are often sliced and then boiled in a pot to soften.

They are then transferred to a mortar and pounded with a pestle to create a smooth mash.

The process of pounding itself is an art that alternates between slow, hard, deliberate strikes; softer fast ones to create a uniform consistency.

The dish is best enjoyed with Egusi soup or Efo riro.

Red Confidential/Shutterstock

Amala

Amala can be a topic of hot debate in the Nigerian social space. Regarded as an acquired taste, it’s processed by slightly cooking the yam to remove toxins and drying the yam to remove all moisture. Traditionally, the yam peels (sometimes along with the barks) are sun-dried for two to six days. Once completely dried, the peels are milled into a powder known as elubo. These days, some producers use dehydrators to speed up the process.

To make amala, the elubo flour is mixed with boiling water and stirred heavily until it rises and develops a smooth consistency. It’s popularly enjoyed with ewedu soup and gbegiri.

You’ll find amala all over Nigeria, but its home is considered to be in Oyo State, Southwestern Nigeria.

The interesting thing about amala (and the flour it’s made with) is how it possibly evolved as a means of preservation before the age of technology. With this method, yams were protected from moisture and rot and could be enjoyed until the next harvest.

Yam Pottage (Asaro)

This Nigerian spin on pottage is boiled yams cooked in a spicy tomato stew. The stew is thickened and garnished with a wide range of accompaniments, from stock fish and beef to spinach leaves.

Nigerians, ever true to their unique adaptation of English words, use pottage and porridge interchangeably.

Yamarita

Inspired by southern fried chicken, this modern favorite features softened yam dipped in flour and eggs, and then coated and deep-fried.

The crunchy exterior and softened interior are paired with a range of sides, including egg sauces, spicy stews, and even ketchup.

There are certainly a million and one ways to eat yams: roasted, boiled, or deep-fried, some modern connoisseurs have even attempted to create pastries out of the tuber by turning it into flour for baking.

A Symbol of Heritage

Aside from their versatility and economic significance, the white yams hold great cultural significance in West Africa. For the Igbo and Yoruba people of Southern Nigeria, it symbolizes prosperity and fertility. For the Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria, the yam crop is not just a harvest, but a symbol of hard work, wealth, and celebration.

Since the early days, the harvest of yams represented the start of a new harvest season. Often the first crops harvested, the New Yam Festival is celebrated to acknowledge the hard work of the season and, of course, thank the gods for their hard work.

On the eve of the New Yam Festival, the old yams are cooked for a feast. The new yams are then offered to the gods to thank them for a fruitful harvest, before being distributed to the community.

In modern times, the festival still holds great cultural significance and is celebrated by Igbo communities around the world. The festival is also celebrated in some parts of Southern Nigeria such as Kogi state.

Primestock Photography/Shutterstock

In pre-colonial times, the size of a man’s yam barn determined the status of his wealth and respect in society. This is evident in a number of notable literary works telling stories of Nigeria’s olden days. A shining example is Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. Throughout the book, the prosperity of men is constantly linked to their production of yams.

“Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things,” Achebe writes. “He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams.”

He even adds, “Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.”

For the early people, the yam wasn’t just a symbol of harvest—a man with no yams was considered no man at all.

Fertility, Twins

When it comes to the birthing of twins, the numbers and figures are disputed, but researchers have reached the conclusion that the Yoruba people of South Western Nigeria have one of the highest twinning rates in the world, with an average twinning rate of about 33 per 1,000 births, compared to the global average of 4 per 1,000 births.

One town in South Western Nigeria—Igbo Ora—has been dubbed the twin capital of the world.

While this statement has been disputed by several researchers, a study in the late 1970s found the twinning rate in the town to be 50 per 1,000 births—one of the highest in the world at the time.

One of the researchers in the study, Patrick Nylander, speculated that this exceptionally high occurrence of twin births could be due to the consumption of yams in the region and theorized that the high concentration of the phytoestrogen hormone in yams could stimulate multiple ovulations among the women in the region.

There hasn’t been much research proving this claim and, in fact, many modern researchers have countered it, arguing that the high twinning rates are more likely due to genetics and environmental factors. This is more likely. After all, yam is consumed across the country.

The women of the town, however, swear by the potency of a yam diet in producing twins. While scientific evidence may prove otherwise, it’s easy to see how the region’s fertility can be attributed to this tuber with all its diversity: pounded yam for breakfast, amala for lunch, and asaro for dinner.

Eating yams may not give you twins, but the tuber is certainly a great way to experience the versatility of Nigerian cuisine.

See more at Fodor's Travel