What is ube, the purple Filipino dessert ingredient winning over foodies?

The tuber is being used in jams, cheesecakes, macaroons and even burgers

Filipino rice cake sapin sapin by food content creator Kawaling Pinoy. Photo: Kawaling Pinoy
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Carabao milk ice cream street-peddled in wooden pushcarts. Tricoloured glutinous rice cake sprinkled with toasted coconut flakes. Shaved ice with jellies, beans and custard, drenched in evaporated milk.

There are many different ways in which Filipino desserts are served, but one ingredient that has the potential to elevate them all is ube – a purple yam native to Asian tropics and a ubiquitous staple in the Philippines.

The popularity of ube has even crossed the shores of the South-east Asian nation, making its way to other cuisines, and available in the form of ube-flavoured cheesecake, plus pancakes, waffles and other western dishes.

Its vivid colour aside, ube has a gentle but earthy sweetness that has fans coming back for more.

What is ube?

Ube, pronounced oo-beh, is believed to have originated in the Philippines. Typically used in desserts and pastries, it shares some flavour traits with sweet potato and taro, but has a nuttier, vanilla-like profile. It's best likened to white chocolate with notes of pistachio.

Perhaps its biggest difference from other tubers is its natural purple hue, which intensifies when cooked and makes for a vibrant-looking sweet treat.

Ube halaya is one of the most popular Filipino dishes that uses this ingredient. It is made by boiling the tuber, then mashing and mixing it in a saucepan with sweetened milk and butter or margarine. It is typically cooled before serving.

This variant is the base for many other ube-flavoured treats, such as sorbetes, a carabao milk ice cream; sapin sapin, a chewy delicacy made with glutinous rice and coconut milk; and the famous icy Filipino dessert halo-halo.

Although ube has been used by Filipinos since time immemorial, the rise of experimental cooking during the pandemic sparked a food trend that fused the tuber with another Filipino staple, the pandesal – a soft, fluffy and slightly sweet bread usually eaten for breakfast.

Its most popular variation is one with a cheese filling.

Purple reign

The catalogue of ube-flavoured treats grew quickly on the back of the purple pandesal's fame and, not long after, Filipinos in the UAE caught up.

“Filipinos here would mirror trends back home to create a feeling of belongingness,” Sunshine Mendoza, who lives in Dubai, tells The National. As a foodie, she became an eager patron of home bakers who would advertise their ube pandesal on social media.

“I have fond memories of ube from when I was a child,” she says. She remembers Ube Jam by Mountain Maid, a popular ube halaya brand sold out of a jar in the northern city of Baguio, about a five-hour drive from the capital Manila, where her family live.

“Whenever someone goes to Baguio, that ube jam is a mandatory souvenir,” she says. Although people would usually use the jam as a spread, Mendoza likes to eat it as is. “I scoop a spoonful and enjoy its earthy goodness.”

For other Filipinos, ube is associated with familial bonding, especially the making of ube halaya. Dubai resident Stephanie Calderon says it would take a group effort among her relatives to create the perfect creamy jam.

“When I was back home, you could say I was living a double life: one in the city and one in the province. And whenever I go to the province, I would always look forward to making ube halaya with my family,” she says.

Calderon is referring to the arduous, sometimes lengthy, process of traditionally perfecting the consistency of the dish. In provinces, ube halaya is typically cooked in a large metal pot over wood fire and stirred continuously until all the ingredients are combined and the paste has thickened.

“This is one of the moments I miss. I'm glad ube products are becoming easily available here, but nothing beats the experience of having it back home,” she says.

Ube in the UAE

Several Dubai bakeries, most of them Filipino-owned, were also quick to jump on the trend, launching ube-flavoured products to ride the sentimental wave. Panadero, which has six shops across the Emirates, sells purple pandesal for Dh1 a pop.

The Kakao Guy is another Filipino-owned bakery that incorporates ube in its products. “Aside from its colour and flavour, ube is packed with nostalgic appeal. As Filipinos, it's what we grew up eating,” says Lei Aquino, the online shop's general manager.

The boutique brand, however, follows a more modern approach as they use the tuber as a flavouring agent for its burnt cheesecake, Nama chocolate products and bibingka rice cake baked in banana leaves.

This fusion, Aquino says, is “our way of introducing the Filipino ingredient to other nationalities who might not be familiar with it”.

She says the biggest customers are locals and other expat communities, thereby allowing the company to promote Filipino ingredients.

The versatility of ube makes it an easy ingredient to experiment with, says Aquino, adding it's like using vanilla extract to offer a touch of sweetness to a dish.

The lilac flesh adds dramatic flare to an ube dessert, which is another plus in our social-media-fuelled world. Chef Hadi Saroufim of Bar Du Port in Dubai says he loves ube for the “unique colour it adds to my dishes. The beautiful shade of lavender makes the presentation visually appealing.

“I use ube as a coulis to drizzle over desserts such as cheesecakes, and also create ube ice cream, ube cakes and even ube-flavoured macaroons.”

Heirida Marica, a pastry chef at H Hotel in Dubai, also uses the tuber for its “playful colour and because it adds a creamy texture to pastries”, she says.

Despite ube's increasingly popularity in the UAE, it is still not readily available here. Saroufim says purchasing ube for commercial use still requires ordering from specific international suppliers.

Aquino agrees, saying ube is not a product you can easily buy from supermarkets. Those who want to use the tuber at home in the UAE often end up using processed versions, such as an ube extract, powder or jam.

“It will give you the flavour and the colour, but it's different when you use the actual vegetable,” she says.

International appeal

Beyond our shores, the international allure of ube has caught the eye of London's trend forecaster WGSN, which included the Filipino vegetable in its top 2023 trends list, alongside curry and mushroom. It described ube as having an “Instagram-worthy hue” into which brands can tap.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of food content creators have been dishing out ube recipes with a focus on visually appealing creations.

WGSN also highlights ube's dynamic range as part of what makes it a potential food trend this year, with brands in North America using the earthy vanilla notes even in savoury rice and burger dishes.

The renewed and increasing popularity of ube could encourage people to explore Filipino cuisine beyond adobo or Filipino-style spaghetti.

Aquino says The Kakao Guy plans to open its first brick-and-mortar shop this year, and continue championing South-east Asian flavours in its products, in a bid to show that Filipino food is ready to make its mark on the global gastronomy map.

Updated: May 22, 2023, 1:02 PM