Ube Is Everywhere—Find Out Why This Purple Yam Is So Popular

This Southeast Asian staple is having a moment in the sun.

<p>bonchan / Getty Images</p>

bonchan / Getty Images

Suddenly it seems there's no escaping ube. Native to the Philippines, this unique tuber, also known as purple yam, violet yam, or water yam, is on the fast track to ubiquity, popping up on Instagram feeds, going viral on TikTok, headlining dessert and ice cream menus, crowding the frozen food fridges at grocery chains, and even garnering recognition as the flavor of the year, according to some food and beverage trend reports. Needless to say, much of this root vegetable's burgeoning popularity has to do with its vivid violet hue.

We reached out to Filipino food experts to learn more about ube and its newfound currency. It turns out that not every ube creation you see is the result of nature itself—and some may even be the product of an entirely different vegetable.

Meet Our Expert

Amy Besa, co-owner of Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Purple Yam Malate, a bakery in Manila, Philippines.

Romy Dorotan, chef and co-owner of Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Candice Mallari, catering event manager at Coney Island Creamery in San Dimas, Calif.

Related: Yes, There Is a Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes—Here's How to Tell Your Tubers Apart

What Is Ube?

Grown in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, ube (Dioscorea alata) is a perennial twining vine that thrives in tropical weather, producing tubers rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant that lends fruits and vegetables their red, blue, and purple colorations.

This root vegetable varies dramatically in color, size, shape, and even taste, depending on the climate and soil in which it is grown. Ube can be large and knobby, growing as big as a boulder, with hairy skin, says Amy Besa, who co-owns the Filipino restaurant Purple Yam in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, Chef Romy Dorotan.

Given its purple presence on social media, it seems logical to assume that the ube's flesh is always brilliant violet, but that's hardly the case. "There are so many varieties, even white purple yams, and they all have different flavors," says Besa.

Ube Imposters

Ube has a doppelgänger, of sorts. Many of the photogenic tubers making a splash in the virtual world may actually be purple sweet potatoes masquerading as ube, says Besa. Some ube products are natural, but many are made with artificial flavorings and colorings. Ube powder, made with dehydrated, ground ube and ube extract, can also impart that heavenly hue.

Given the recent spate of interest in the vegetable, there's pressure to make it appear purple, says Besa. "The reason it's so popular is the novelty of the color," she says. What's more, ube is not very accessible. "It's very hard to get ube in the U.S. Even in the Philippines, it's difficult to get good ones," says Besa, adding that most Filipinos probably don't know what the tuber looks like.

Potatoes vs. Yams

Purple sweet potatoes, which are long and elongated, are not botanically related to purple yams, and as their name indicates, are much sweeter, too. If you were to cut a cross-section of each, the difference would be striking: The purple yam is layered with white, lavender, or purple streaks, some very light, while the sweet potato is circular, more solid, says Besa. The texture is also different. "The sweet potato is smooth, more compact, while the ube is rougher," says Dorotan.

How Ube Is Used

This prized ingredient typically turns up in sweet treats. Ube has been beloved in its homeland for generations, and despite being a vegetable, is rarely incorporated into savory recipes. "Ube is traditionally used in Filipino desserts like halo-halo (shaved ice), various kakanin (rice cakes), ube halaya (jam), and ice cream," says Candice Mallari, catering event manager of Coney Island Creamery, a women- and family-owned artisanal ice cream manufacturer that specializes in tropical and Southeast Asian flavors, including ube, macapuno ( a coconut cultivar), and langka (jackfruit). According to Mallari, ube lends a natural sweetness to the frozen treats, and it's creamier than the company's other ice cream flavors.

Dorotan makes his own ube jam (also spelled haleya) with coconut milk and sugar, and uses it to make ice cream and desserts, such as young coconut pie, spreading a layer of jam, then adding the coconut on top.

Taste Sensation

Ube's flavor is not only nuanced, but transporting, says Mallari. "Ube's taste is often described as having an earthy, nutty flavor, with notes of coconut, and many compare it to vanilla," says Mallari. "But for us, the flavor of ube is one that brings us back home to the Philippines and carries memories from all the times we've spent eating it."

In some instances, those ube taste descriptions may have more to do with other ingredients than the ube itself, says Besa. "When people say ube tastes like vanilla or coconut, it's because of what's added," she says. Mallari regards it as something of a flavor booster. "We've found that ube is a very complementary ingredient in that it enhances other flavors when paired," she says.

Where to Buy Ube

Though ube is seemingly everywhere, the fresh tuber is rarely found stateside. "Ube is not typically sold at your local grocery store, but can be found at Filipino grocery stores in a frozen grated form, and occasionally, the tuber itself,” says Mallari.

The ube-curious may have better luck locating ube jam, sold at Asian specialty stores and online, or, better yet, exploring ube concoctions at Filipino eateries.

Read the original article on Martha Stewart.