Thursday, December 23, 2021

Stewed yams, a delicacy for Christmas Eve

Ñames (Yams) at the Mercado (Municipal Market) in La Laguna

Stewed yam is one of the most typical products of the land on the tables of the Canary Islands, especially in Tenerife and La Palma, in the Christmas and Carnival celebrations and is undoubtedly one of the favourite desserts at Christmas. This tuber, a direct relative of potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava, is usually served, with mojo, as a garnish to accompany salty fish, but during these holidays it is presented as an appetizer or dessert, chopped and sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon or accompanied with palm honey. 

The already stewed yams arrive at the markets around Christmas.

In the Canary Islands it is one of the oldest crops (mentioned by the biologist and writer José de Viera y Clavijo in the 18th century) and present in the basic diet, especially in the past. It is often said that "yams have killed a lot of hunger", because it was an important resource, especially in times of famine or poor harvests.

The so-called ‘ñamera’ (yam plant - often seen in squares all over the islands - requires a lot of water, so the ravines and springs (patameros) are the traditional areas of cultivation on the islands. Also for this reason it is more common to find them on the northern slopes of the more humid islands, especially on those of La Palma (Barlovento, and San Andrés y Sauces) and Tenerife (Macizos de Anaga and Teno), La Gomera and Gran Canaria.

Although it does not need much care, the plant can reach a height of 90 centimetres and the tuber is deep-rooted, making it difficult to harvest. This is probably why it isn't usually a cash crop. Small tubers that form at the base of adult plants, sown in pots and then transplanted, are usually used as seeds. However, the most common is to replant tubers or the upper part of the root in spring, with cut stems.

Of the ñamera in the Canary Islands, only the tuber is consumed, while in other areas of the planet the stems and leaves are also cooked. The tuber is highly valued for its sweet taste and texture, but it can only be eaten stewed, as it contains certain substances that make it indigestible raw, causing serious intestinal problems.

The traditional process of stewing in the Canary Islands is somewhat cumbersome, since it requires several days and a previous treatment of heading and drying of the tubers. However, it is the most common form of consumption, although Gran Canaria and La Gomera are also often added raw - without previous stewing - as a vegetable for stew.

The manner of consumption is also different depending on the island. In Tenerife and La Palma it is usually eaten accompanied by salted fish, fried eggs, or as a dessert at Christmas, Carnival and Easter, accompanied with cheese, cinnamon and sugar, or palm honey. In Gran Canaria and La Gomera it is also added to stews and sancochos, to give them a special sweetness and thickness.

Historically, the yam leaf was also used, either to cover certain products that were to be kept fresh or moist, or as a cover for a jug or canteen to transport fresh water.

Ñames guisados, un manjar para Noche Buena