There are different versions of yam cakes around the world, some sweet and some savory. The common element in the cakes is the use of the yam as the base for the entire recipe. In Southeast Asia, the cakes are generally steamed and have a savory taste, including shrimp, sausage and other ground meats in the mixture. In Native American cuisine, yam cakes can be loose bundles of shredded yam that are fried or baked. A few recipes exist for actual dessert-style yam cakes, although these are not as common, partly because yams might become very hard and dense when used in structures such as tall cakes.
The main ingredient in yam cakes is the yam, although what a yam is can be confusing. In some Southeast Asian countries, a type of corm known as taro is sometimes called a yam. In North America, the term "yam" is often used incorrectly to identify a sweet potato. While both a sweet potato and taro resemble a yam in some ways, they are not true yams. Taro is closer in flavor to a yam than a sweet potato although, with the prevalence of yams in Asia, many recipes do use actual yams.
In Southeast Asian cuisine, yam cakes are savory snacks, appetizers or accompaniments to soups or other main courses. The yams are very hard when they are raw and the preparation of yam cakes begins by steaming, boiling or soaking the yams until they are tender. They are then mashed together with rice flour and sometimes tapioca flour along with warm water to form a batter.
Other ingredients can be added to the batter, including garlic, ginger, hot pepper flakes, mushrooms, five-spice powder, onions or shallots. All of these ingredients are usually cooked beforehand to develop their flavors and textures. Meats and seafood also are usually added to the yam cakes, including Chinese sausage, ground or diced pork or shrimp. The meat additions are generally chopped very fine or are crushed into powder from dried forms and cooked through prior be adding to the batter. The entire batter is poured into a pan and steamed until solid, after which the top can be decorated with nuts, spices or vegetable shavings.
In Native American cooking, yam cakes start by grating the yams into shreds and then mixing them with flour, eggs and sugar. The mixture can then be fried quickly in oil to form crisp cakes. Another version, and one that has been adapted to create a yam-flavored dessert cake, involved the same ingredients, except the yams are mashed with the other ingredients and then combined with milk and baked until they form biscuit-like cakes.