Ube: Why The Philippine Dish Is Growing In Popularity
Image Credit: Ube | Image Credit: Freepik.com

Ube, or the purple yam, is an ingredient that is widely used in a variety of sweet dishes throughout the Philippines. In recent years, this bright purple tuber has established itself as a fundamental component of Philippine fare, taking over Instagram feeds and winning the hearts of food critics and patrons alike with its delectable taste across a wide range of desserts. Read on to find out more about the pastry world’s favorite tuber.

Ube is a type of purple yam defined by a set of phenotypic characteristics and is native to the Philippines; the word literally means "tuber." It has a mild, nutty flavor, backed by a vanilla undertone. The most common use case for the tuber is as a dessert; ube can be used as an addition to various global staples like cakes, cookies, ice cream, and more. Ube has a distinct taste that is often accentuated with the addition of coconut or vanilla. Ube has been used in desserts for centuries in the Philippines. The root was first used to make a dessert called "Ube halaya," a pudding-like preparation made by mashing it with coconut and/or condensed milk. This mash is still consumed all over the Philippines and also forms the base for almost any handmade dessert that features the bright tuber.

Ube is used in fine dining establishments all over the world for both its distinct flavor and appearance. The tuber is also used in ready-to-eat products like jams, ice cream, candy, gummies, etc. The tuber is incredibly popular in countries all over the world. However, most pastry shops outside the Philippines that sell desserts that claim to incorporate the tuber actually use other phenotypes of purple yam, with the proprietors and customers themselves failing to spot the difference. Ube is unavailable in most countries owing to import restrictions on the plant, which is considered to be an invasive species. Pastry chefs in these countries have to make do with other phenotypes of purple yam or buy ube in prepackaged form from the Philippines.

Philippine or Philippine-descended families in the US are known for incorporating the vegetable into several of the country's staples, such as cheesecakes, flans, layer cakes, soft serves, etc. Chefs who are a part of these communities have come up with unique methods to replicate the ube flavor when the root isn’t readily available. Kimberly Camara, the co-owner of the NYC Filipino Doughnut shop, Kora, uses Okinawan purple yam grown in Hawaii in combination with frozen sliced ube and ube extract from the Philippines for her doughnuts. Camara says that the taste of the okinawan purple yam is almost identical to that of ube but that it falls short in the area of color, taking on a lavender hue as opposed to purple after it is processed. To make her signature ube doughnuts, Camara used a pastry cream that was inspired by the ube halaya and made with corn starch, eggs, sugar, whole milk, ube mash, and ube extract. She uses ube extract in the doughnut dough to give it a deep purple color, and deep fries it after, sans the hole. The doughnut is piped with the pastry cream, topped with an ube glaze, and garnished with Okinawan purple yam chips to finish. The shop also sells several other ube-based desserts, such as a halo-halo (a Filipino dessert made with ube ice cream and cut fruits) doughnut, an ube-buko (tender coconut) Thanksgiving pie, and ube cookies. The shop is immensely popular across NYC, boasting an incredible 10,000+ person waiting list. 

In addition to being absolutely delicious, ube is touted for its numerous health benefits. Ube is high in fiber, which helps promote digestive health and maintain a healthy gut. The root also boasts a great micronutrient complex and is a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C. Ube is also high in antioxidants, namely anthocyanins, which help reduce inflammation and protect the body from oxidative stress.

Want to try Ube for yourself? The Indian subcontinent has something that is very close, in the form of a purple yam called "kand" or "konfal." The yam, like most other phenotypes, has a flavor profile close to that of the ube. The tuber is seasonal, available in Maharashtrian markets from December to January each year. Denizens of the state consume the tuber in an assortment of savory dishes, ranging from wafers to chaat. That said, the root can definitely be consumed as a dessert, in a manner similar to the ube halaya; all you need is a bowl of mashed kand and a can of condensed milk.