Triumph of the Lowly Yam

The fastest man, Usain Bolt, has unexpectedly liberated a vegetable from the humility it has been forced into
speed
With Bolt’s success, yam has emerged as a superfood
For Bolt’s fans in India, apart from the Trelawny yam there’s also the Indian one

For some reason, people who smoke the pipe always have a proud bearing. It’s as if the fumes swell their chests. So it was with Rudolf Dassler, the late founder of Puma, the sports goods company. He was a German who looked powerful in suits and glasses. He was a Nazi supporter. He was not the kind of person who would inspire comparisons with the yam.

But the world is not what it seems and Dassler and this vegetable of the poor share important similarities. Both had to suffer a more famous relative. Despite his swagger, Dassler played second fiddle for a large part of his life to estranged brother Adi, the owner of Adidas. The yam always lurked in the background while its acclaimed starchy cousin, the potato, baked in the limelight.

But now both Dassler and the yam are riding a fresh wave of recognition. That is thanks to the most exciting sportsman in the world, a man who has auto fuel, not blood in his veins—Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter, who holds world records in the 100 m and the 200 m sprints, runs in Puma shoes. He grew up on yams.

For the Berlin World Championships, where Bolt bettered the times he had clocked in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Puma made a shoe for him named after his beloved vegetable. Of orange hue, it was titled the ‘Street Yaam’. This was a milestone in the insipid history of botany. For the first time ever, a vegetable had inspired an athletic shoe. (If Indian cricketers have footwear named after their favourite foods, we might have to choose between the Yuvraj Aloo Parantha and the Dhoni Chilly Chicken.)

The yam went to the West Indies from Africa. Bolt grew up in Sherwood Content in the Trelawny region of Jamaica. Trelawny yields yam by the truckloads. It produces 60 per cent of Jamaica’s yam and hosts an annual yam festival. Last year, after Bolt became a worldwide sensation after his scorching runs in Beijing, journalists directed the usual ‘secret of his success’ question to his father, Wellesley. He replied, “It is definitely the Trelawny yam.”

Luckily for Bolt’s fans in India, there is not just the Trelawny yam but also the Indian one. More than one, actually. The yam has several avatars. “It is like the rose, which has some 900 species,” says Ananda Solomon, corporate chef, Taj Premium Hotels and executive chef, Taj President. Two of the varieties are especially popular in India. The purple and the yellow. The purple one is called ‘kand’. It is expensive and costs more than Rs 100 a kg. Vegetable vendors talk about it with a faraway look in their eyes, stopping just short of breaking into Urdu couplets. Those in your locality, however, say they don’t stock it. They suggest you go to nicer precincts where the buying power of the residents is better. You return home with the ego bruised and bag empty.

The yellow yam is called ‘suran’. For many Indians, even the sweet potato, or the ‘ratalu’, is a yam. When you ask the vendor if the suran is good for runners, he answers in the affirmative and then recommends the sweet potato as well. He holds it up as he talks. “Boys who go to the gym have a lot of this,” he says, pointing to his arm.

Nutritionist Suman Agarwal says, “The calorific value of the yam is better than the potato and it has fibre as well. I would recommend it to athletes.” Sanjeev Kapoor, the recipe book that talks and smiles and hosts television shows, says, “I haven’t come across many people who eat yam for nutrition. Indians consume it mostly during fasting. Yes, it has high energy and starch. But you cannot just eat yams and expect to run like Usain Bolt.” (Obviously.)

Asked how he would cook the yam if Bolt burst into his kitchen, Kapoor says, “It is a versatile vegetable. I would do a roast or a stir fry or a chaat.”

“The Indian way of cooking it would enhance the value of the yam,” says Rujuta Diwekar, the trainer and food adviser responsible for shrinking Kareena Kapoor. “The jeera, oil and turmeric would make up for the certain amino acids that the yam lacks.” There is an urgent need for someone to lace up in Bolt’s yam-coloured shoes and plant a kick into the backsides of vegetable snobs, of whom there are several. “When people are told to eat healthy they eat broccoli or asparagus but not local produce,” says Diwekar. “The Indian diet is rich in root vegetables. They just need to be more popular. Look at Bolt. He is being true to his roots (the pun is accidental). Surely, everyone will be interested in the yam now.”

Sanjeev Kapoor describes the taste of the yam as “earthy and complex”. For the lay person, it tastes “just like potato”. The yam is the body double that can be pressed into service when the star is unavailable. For mothers whose children want potato in everything, the yam is an ally which helps them pull a fast one on their annoying, potato-fixated kids. They serve it as a curry, a dry sabzi or in the form of fritters or cutlets. Many times, the kids believe they are eating potato.

The yam’s stellar recipe, the one in which this relatively marginal vegetable plays the main guy, is the undhiyo. Undhiyo is a truly impressive preparation from Gujarat. It brings together ingredients that otherwise would not mix. It has, for instance, such disparate elements such as muthia, which is a farsan [snack], and raw banana, which is part fruit, part vegetable. And in a dish of such uniqueness, the yam plays the pivotal part. “The purple and yellow yams are both primary ingredients in the undhiyo,” says Pinky Dixit, owner of Soam restaurant in Mumbai. Soam serves yellow yam dishes during the month of Shraavan and purple yam the entire year. Bolt should try the undhiyo if he comes to India for the Commonwealth Games next year. He would love it. He might even change his name to ‘Patel’.

Michael Jordan would have steak 3 hours before a game. Tennis players are known to wolf down spaghetti bolognese. Long jumper Anju George’s staple is any fish with silver skin. With Bolt’s success, yam has emerged as a superfood.

Ritesh Anand and Rahamatolla Molla are among the Indian sprinters undergoing a preparation camp in Patiala for the Asian Athletics Championships in Guangzhou in November. Like everyone in athletics, they are astounded by Bolt’s capabilities and passionately analyse all aspects of his running.

“People talk about his finish, but the way he maintains his speed is equally special,” says Anand. “From 30 m to 70 m, he puts 99 per cent effort. He saves himself for the finish. The last 30 metres, he unleashes his 100 per cent.”

They watch how his strides gobble the track up. “As his speed increases, so does the length of his stride,” says Ritesh. The fastest that he himself has run the 100 m is 10.60 seconds. He must wonder how Bolt could do it in 9.58. A lot of it has to do with talent and effort. The rest, as Wellesley Bolt said, “is definitely the Trelawny yam”.