Ube: The Powerful Purple Yam
Kelly Izdihar Crosby
If you’re a foodie who’s always looking for the latest fad, you might have noticed your Instagram feed turning purple. The social media platform has been inundated with pictures of purple desserts from boba tea to ice cream to brownies. They are all made from ube (pronounced “ooh-beh”), the latest vegetable on the culinary hipster scene. Ube, also known as a purple yam, violet yam, or water yam, is a staple of traditional and modern Filipino cuisine. This root vegetable originated in Southeast Asia but is now cultivated worldwide. Ube is a huge part of national identity in the Philippines, all thanks to its inclusion in many Filipino desserts. Its growing popularity in the U.S. is also due to more Filipino restaurants adding it to their menus for curious customers to enjoy.
Compared to an orange yam, ube has a sweeter, mellower taste with a slightly nutty flavor. Some describe the taste as a combination of vanilla and pistachio. The most common way to enjoy ube is by turning it into ube halaya, or ube jam. To make ube halaya, first boil purple yams and then peel, grate, and mash them. Next, add sugar, water, and condensed milk or coconut milk and mix them together. Then stir the mixture in a saucepan with melted margarine or butter until it thickens. Ube halaya can be served alone or topped with toasted coconut flakes or shredded cheese. It is often used to top halo-halo, a Filipino treat made with sweetened beans, shaved ice drizzled with evaporated milk, fruit, and ice cream.
Adding ube to other desserts is where the fun begins! In the Philippines, ube halaya is added to cookies, candies, flans, breads, and cakes. Ube macapuno cake is a Filipino purple yam cake prepared with macapuno, or coconut preserves, along with purple yams and basic cake ingredients like flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. You can churn your own ube ice cream with heavy whipping cream, sweetened condensed milk, ube flavoring extract, and ube powder. Make some purple bread by adding mashed ube to your bread recipe for some extra nutrients. By replacing chocolate with ube, you can even create a purple version of chocolate crinkle cookies, a traditional American holiday treat.
While ube is served in a variety of desserts, it is not just a sweet treat. Ube’s vibrant violet hue makes for an interesting conversation starter at the dinner table. Its mellow taste makes it great for soups and stir-fries as well. Canh khoai mỡ, or Vietnamese creamy purple yam soup, is a savory dish flavored with garlic, spring onions, and chicken or vegetable stock. Japanese purple stir-fry includes purple yams, along with purple cabbage, tofu, beetroot, and spinach, all sweetened with honey, sesame oil, and soy sauce. You can also try a roasted ube mushroom salad or baked ube chips as a snack. Ube has given chefs around the world inspiration to make bold new recipes.
Like an orange yam, ube is packed with healthy carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium. According to Susan McCabe, RD, in an article for Healthline. one cup of cooked ube provides twenty-seven grams of carbohydrates, four grams of fiber, 40% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C, and 13.5% of the recommended daily value of potassium. McCabe also says that vitamin C “keeps your cells healthy, boosts iron absorption, and protects your DNA from damage.” Vitamin C is also necessary for developing and repairing body tissue and helps facilitate the proper functioning of the immune system.
Potassium is another important mineral found in ube. According to the article “How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure” from the American Heart Association, “foods that are rich in potassium are important in managing high blood pressure…because potassium lessens the effects of sodium. […] Potassium also helps to ease tension in your blood vessel walls, which helps further lower blood pressure.”
Purple yams are healthy on their own and can make for a healthier dessert alternative. However, like any other dessert, they must be eaten in moderation. In an article for Men’s Health by Alisa Hrustic, Keri Gans, RDN, was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, a dessert is still a dessert, most likely with too much added sugar, fat, and calories.” To maximize the health benefits, pair ube with other vegetables and proteins like white-meat poultry, lean beef, shrimp, plain Greek yogurt, or tofu. Ube is safe for anyone to eat. Just don’t go overboard with those delicious desserts.
You can find fresh purple yams, or purple sweet potatoes, in local Filipino and other Asian markets. Ube jams, extracts, powders, and other processed goods can also be found in a Filipino mom-and-pop store or online. When storing your yams, keep in mind that they have a shorter lifespan than regular yams. For fresh purple yams, use them within a week or two of buying them. Keep them in a basket in a cool, dry place. Items like powders or extracts will have a longer shelf life. By using them, you’ll always have some ube on hand to experiment and have fun with.
Kelly Izdihar Crosby is a freelance writer and artist based in Atlanta, GA.