Pounded yam: a meal of a traditional pastime

One of Nigeria's most popular meals

Woman eating pounded yam and efo riro (2019)The Centenary Project

"Yam is food and food is yam"

Nigeria is one of the world’s largest producers of yams, so it's no surprise that yam is a staple food for many ethnic groups in the country. Yam is grown widely in Nigeria. The area where it is grown the most is the Gboko town in Benue state. Yam can be served with a variety of soups like Egusi, Ogbono, Vegetable and Okro. In many parts of the country, it is said that "yam is food and food is yam". 

Fresh stack of yams (2019)The Centenary Project

Fresh yam

Yam is in the class of roots and tubers which provides many Nigerians with some 200 calories of energy per capita daily. Yams are dug out of the ground when harvested.

Agbasaga of Ogidi land, chief Nike Davies-Okundaye (2019)The Centenary Project

New Yam Festivals

The New Yam Festival is significant in many cultures as yam is the first crop harvested during the harvesting season. Among the Igbos, it is celebrated between August and October and depicts the prominence of yam in the sociocultural life. In Kogi state, it is celebrated in June and is characterised by elaborate personal and communal preparations and yam planting competitions.

Pounded Yam and Egusi Soup (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

The art of pounding yam

One of the most popular methods of preparing and serving yam is by "pounding" it to produce a mashed semi-solid paste. While it may seem like an exercise of brute force, there is a technique behind pounding yam which may vary from one ethnic group to another.

Pounding Yam by Adeola BalogunThe Centenary Project

Now, get ready for some serious pounding!

Yam in the marketplace (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Preparing the yam for cooking

Before the yam is pounded, the tubers need to be peeled and sliced into chunks that can be boiled in a pot of hot water. Since yam tubers are usually cylindrical, the slices are easy to cut out.

Tuber of yam sliced (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Removing the bark

The bark is peeled using a sharp knife. While this requires some dexterity, the bark cuts away with some ease. Peeling continues until all the bark is removed and the yam is completely whitish in colour.

Freshly sliced Yam (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Slicing into chunks

The outer covering conceals a hard, whitish interior that can easily be sliced into chunks as needed. These chunks are softened when cooked for some time in boiling water. They can then be eaten as they are or pounded into the soft marshy substance called pounded yam.

The mortar and the pestle used for pounding (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Mortar and pestle for pounding

Mortar and pestle, both made of hard wood, are the traditional tools used to pound chunks of yam that have been softened through pre-boiling. People now use modern pounding machines, but the use of mortar and pestle makes the tastes so much better.

Woman pounding yam (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Pounding begins!

After the chunks of yam are broken into tiny bits, the pounder can get to work with the aim of eliminating all lumps to get a smooth blend of pounded yam.

Pestle Lifted For Pounded Yam (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

The rhythm of pounding

The pounder alternates between soft targeted hits and hard random strikes at the content of the mortar. In this way, the rhythm varies from fast resounding beats to slow deliberate thumps of the pestle against the mortar.

Yam Broken Into Small Pieces In Mortar (2019) by The Centenary projectThe Centenary Project

Pounded Yam Coming Together To A Mould (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

After several strikes, the substance in the mortar begins to stick to the pestle as if acknowledging that it's been beaten to submission.

Smoothening of pounded yam (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Hot water is added so that the mould can be smoothened.

Pounding Yam In Motion (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Further smoothening is done by grinding the pestle against the sides of the mortar.

Meshed Pounded Yam In Mortar (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

More iterations of smoothening take place until all lumps are eliminated.

Pounded yam smoothened (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

The final product is now served out by shaping the pounded yam into smaller balls.

Amala Isu (Yam flour), Wheat dough, Eba (Casava dough), and Pounded Yam (2019)The Centenary Project

"Swallow" among many

Pounded yam is one among a variety of starchy foods in Nigeria fondly called "swallows". They include eba, amala, starch, fufu and many more. Pounded yam is probably the most festive of them all.

Ofe Nsala 'White soup', served with pounded yam (2019)The Centenary Project


Pounded yam is enjoyed with different kinds of soups with each ethnic group having its own preference. It is usually served in balls and wrapped in plastic bags to retain the moist.

Credits: Story

Curator: Patrick Enaholo
Research: Omotunde Omojola
Photographs: Chris Udoh
Text: Patrick Enaholo / Omotunde Omojola
Text editor: Munachim Amah

Special thanks to:
Abigail Omojola
Madam Ashake's Kitchen
Buchi Media

© The Centenary Project

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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