The Wonderful World of Ube: What It Is and Sweet Purple Recipes

The Wonderful World of Ube: What It Is and Sweet Purple Recipes

Not the same as purple sweet potato, the starchy purple yam is used often in desserts, especially in Halo-Halo, the Philippines' chilled showstopper. But there's more to ube than meets the eye. Find out what it is, and what it isn't; how to cook with it and how to store them

First thing: Ube isn't sweet potato, it's yam - read on and you'll soon know all the differences. Next thing: almost every single Filipino restaurant in the archipelagic country has some form of Ube (pronounced as oo-bae) in their kitchens. That’s how well-loved this vibrant purple yam is, especially in classic Filipino desserts like Halo-Halo. Ask any local where you can find this icy-cool, creamy dessert and the nearest option is never more than a few steps away.

Whether you have grown up with this tuber vegetable in your backyard or completely new to this next-superfood-to-be, we’ve got some pretty interesting fun facts and uses for Ube that will whet your appetite and curiosity!

It's a superfood 

There is a good reason we are drawn to the bright amethyst hue of Ube. Their unique shade actually indicates the high concentration of anti-oxidant anthocyanin present. This plant compound provides anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity and blood-pressure reduction benefits, which is shared by super-fruits like pomegranate and blueberries.

A modest 100 grams of this purple yam packs 40% of your daily needs for Vitamin C! If you don’t already know, Vitamin C is essential in iron absorption and boosting immunity. Enjoying Ube in the long run leads to greater protection from cancer and cell damage, plus it improves your gut health. That’s right, when you break apart that fibrous purple yam, that complex, resistant starch within actually promotes the growth of good gut bacteria, Bifidobacteria. Before you rush off to buy a tub of Ube ice cream though, do note that many Ube desserts have a lot of added sugar and undesirable calories. Make your Ube treats at home to moderate the less healthy additions or pair them with lean protein and complex carbs like quinoa to really reap the benefits of a wholesome meal.

What ube is, and what it isn't 

Okinawan sweet potatoes, with a gorgeous purple interior and often best eaten just roasted or steamed. 

If you are like us, you might have held Purple Sweet Potato, Taro or Okinawan Sweet Potato (pictured) in your hands once upon a time at the market, and mistaken it for Ube.

Sweet Potatoes: Purple Sweet Potato or Okinawan sweet potato can be easily distinguished by their lighter exterior (colors range from pale copper to purple) and smoother, almost slick skin. Ube yam though, is different. It has a rough, bumpy texture that resembles a tree-bark, with dark brown skin. Taros might also have rough, brown exteriors, but their shapes are generally rounder (like ovals).

When you slice them open, all these root vegetables also differ in their flesh color, and it’s another way to determine whether you have Ube in your hands. Taro is typically white inside, and might turn a little purplish-grey when steamed, but that’s about as vibrant as it gets. Purple sweet potato are an overall rich violet in color within, and Okinawan sweet potatoes have dark blue-ish purple flesh. As for Ube itself, a cross-section of this yam reveals a splotchy light purple and white interior (colors range from very light purple, almost white to medium purple).

Taro, characterised by a rough texture, and speckled, off-white colour

Sweet potatoes, as its name suggests, are sweeter than yams, and are entirely different root vegetables. Taro is slightly sweet, starchy root vegetable – not yam. It’s easy to get confused though, as Taro’s name in other languages (Ñame or Malanga in South America or Gabi in the Philippines) translates to yam in English, despite it not being of the yam family. As for our main star Ube, it has a mellow, nutty taste that resembles vanilla, and contains more moisture than sweet potatoes.

The next time you go shopping for Ube, note its exterior and shape, and the typical telltale specks within when you cut it up at home to determine whether you have a real yam or not! Or do a taste test for its unique nutty, vanilla-like flavors. 

How to cook with ube

Apart from being a staple in Halo-Halo, there are plenty of other pastry, cookie, cake and jams possibilities with Ube. Mix it up with coconut sport or macapuno to create a lovely, fluffy and beautiful Ube Macapuno Pandesal (pictured). Or combine Ube with Mochiko or Japanese glutinous rice flour to create little Ube Mochi treats that will be the highlight of any dessert table.

To create Ube Halaya or Halayang Ube as a base for your Ube ice cream, pastries or pudding, you just have to grate your yam, before adding brown sugar, condensed milk and evaporated milk in a pot or pan greased with butter. Stir till you’ve got the desired texture and its ready to be used as a jam spread or stored as a base ingredients for your future baked goods in an air-tight container within your fridge (best kept for a week at maximum).

Sweet desserts aren’t the only things you can create with Ube. Mash it with regular potato to create a filling mashed side for your steak, fish fillet or pork chops or stuff it in Savory Ube Pierogies (dumplings).

Choosing the best ube

For the best Ube, pick the ones that are firm all around, with no squishy spots. Even though the skin is rough like a tree bark, it shouldn’t be too wrinkled like an old cucumber. Good yams should be free of bruises, soft spots and discoloration. Be careful when handling fresh yam as the inner flesh may cause irritations on more sensitive skins.

How to store ube 

Contrary to most vegetables, Ube should not be stored in the fridge, as this encourages “sweating”, which accelerates the decaying process. Stash it away in a cool, dry and well-ventilated area of your kitchen and properly stored yams will last you about 3 weeks. 

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