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Ube Is More Than Just A Trend, It’s Here To Stay

Google the word “ube” and dozens, if not hundreds, of articles will pop up explaining the Filipino purple yam. Browse through any self-proclaimed foodie’s Instagram posts and it probably won’t take long to find a bright purple dessert, the signature hue for ube.

Cafe 86 makes 50 ube-flavored products. | Marnette Federis
Cafe 86 makes 50 ube-flavored products. | Marnette Federis

Most food experts would agree that in recent years, ube’s profile has been on the rise, along with the growing popularity of Filipino cuisine. Cooking magazines have published explainers diving into how purple yam differs from other varieties of root vegetables. There are a number of stories pondering, “Is ube the new matcha?” And other articles have taken a look at the health benefits of the starch. For example, Health.com recently published a story titled, “Ube Ice Cream Is Made With Yams, But Is It Healthy?”  (Spoiler alert: While ube has unique nutrients and antioxidants, it’s not healthy when it’s wrapped in refined carbs and or drenched in sugar add-ins). 

In the food world, the purple yam seems to be very much, “in.” But for many Filipino chefs and bakers who have been using it in their cooking for years, the more recent ube explosion comes as no surprise. Ginger Dimapasok is the owner of Cafe 86, a dessert and drinks shop cooking up to 50 menu items that incorporate ube. She says there are two main reasons ube is becoming more popular.

“Number one, it looks different,” says Dimapasok. “Number two, it’s really just delicious on its own.

But don’t call the rise of ube a trend. That’s because trends come and go, Dimapasok says. She says ube, with its subtle flavors and pretty purple color, has staying power.

“I don’t want to look at it as a trend,” says Dimapasok. “I hope that it stays and people will learn to love it and embrace it.”

Ube Purple Crumb Cake Donut from DK's Donuts | Marnette Federis
Ube Purple Crumb Cake Donut from DK's Donuts | Marnette Federis

The purple yam is ubiquitous in the Philippines and Southeast Asia and is a staple in many Filipino desserts — from ice cream and shaved ice to breads and cakes. Most would describe the root vegetable’s flavor as delicate with hints of vanilla. Often, ube is mixed with coconut, a flavorful combination that’s not too overwhelming.

“It works really well with flavors like coconut,” says Dimapasok. “It’s not overly sweet.”

Dimapasok also credits ube’s popularity to Filipino chefs and entrepreneurs, who have opened up their own restaurants and are now introducing Filipino flavors to the larger public. It’s no surprise that those encountering ube for the first time will find it in establishments owned by Filipinos in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Canada and the Bay Area. Dimapasok currently owns three Southern California branches of Cafe 86 in Chino, Pasadena and Artesia.

Halo-halo is a Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, evaporated milk mixed with various ingredients including sweet beans, jackfruit and usually topped with ube ice cream. | Courtesy of Cafe 86
Halo-halo is a Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, evaporated milk mixed with various ingredients including sweet beans, jackfruit and usually topped with ube ice cream. | Courtesy of Cafe 86

“I think it started because there was an influx of second and third-generation Filipinos who were all of a sudden awakened and they just wanted to put their cuisine out there,” says Dimapasok. “Now we have all these young chefs who are trying to present [Filipino food] in a way that’s not too intimidating.”

Dimapasok says ube’s adaptability is another reason why the flavor is finding its place in the mainstream. She says bakers and chefs can make a variety of products that incorporate ube. There’s ube bread, cheesecake, cookies and ice cream. Cafe 86 makes ube pop tarts, just one example of how Dimapasok takes American recipes and incorporates ube.  The cafe’s most popular menu item is the monster truffle, made with ube cake, covered in crushed Oreos.

“[Ube] a very good palate to work with. You can pretty much make anything out of it,” says Dimapasok.

But there’s still some education that needs to be done to help more people understand what ube is. Many confuse the yam with other types of root vegetables including taro or the Okinawan sweet potato.

“Taro is a different root vegetable, ube is a purple yam,” says Gigi Pascual, owner of Buttermilk Inc. who sells ube pancake mix wholesale and in retail stores. “So they’re two totally different starches.”

Sourcing ube in the United States can be difficult. Most restaurant owners can buy fresh ube frozen, as a dehydrated powder or as an extract. But obtaining large quantities of it is tough.

The original ube donut and other flavors | Courtesy of DK's Donuts
The original ube donut and other flavors | Courtesy of DK Donuts

“I always kind of went for the dried form, which is really hard to get,” says Pascual. Buttermilk, Inc. started as a food truck back in 2009 and started selling gourmet pancake mixes in 2013. Today, a number of eateries throughout Southern California and in Connecticut use Buttermilk, Inc. mix in treats and products.

Social media has been a boon to ube. Its distinct, deep purple color gets people’s attention and can instantly garner tons of likes.

“Not only is it super delicious, but it has a certain look to it,” says Mayly Tao, owner of DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica. “People are eating with their eyes and they're seeing this crazy, cool purple color and all of a sudden and they're kind of interested. And once they try it, that kind of seals the deal.”

When Tao took over her family’s doughnut business in 2012, she was on the lookout for new flavors that she could use to create new doughnut products. Tao, whose family is Cambodian, grew up with many Filipino friends and was familiar with traditional dishes and flavors. Whenever she was invited to family gatherings, she would always gravitate to the ube desserts. In 2013, she decided to create a doughnut using the flavor.

Tao says back then, she scoured the internet to see if anyone was creating ube doughnuts, but she could not find anything. She calls her shop’s creation, which was unveiled in 2014, the first ube doughnut to ever exist. Using Buttermilk, Inc.’s mix, Tao created her own recipe to make a crumb ube cake doughnut. The shop also sells doughnuts with the ube icing or toppings. Fast forward to 2017 and Tao says her shop’s eight types of ube doughnuts have been absolute hits with her customers.

“We take pride in knowing that we have a lot of varieties of this and we've perfected it and that it is absolutely delicious,” says Tao.

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Tao agrees with Dimapasok that ube is here to stay. She sees the flavor to be at the same level as other standard dessert flavors like chocolate, maple or vanilla.

Ube Pop-tarts | Courtesy of Cafe 86
Ube Pop-tarts | Courtesy of Cafe 86

“I think ube is a staple flavor that makes my taste buds dance around,” says Tao. “It’s not too sweet … I think that’s something people like. And I love coconut and ube has a nice hint of coconut to it. Altogether, the textures of it taste so good. It’s like a step above vanilla.”

Customers seem to agree. Brian Veskosky, the owner of Red Maple, a  gelateria, coffee bar and cafe in Burbank, says that out of the 16 gelato flavors he offers, ube is the top seller.

“It is our number one flavor, has been pretty much from day one,” says Veskosky. “We can base that on sales and how much we go through the products. When we run out of it and we don't have it, we have unhappy people.”

Veskosky learned about ube after reading about it in a restaurateur magazine.  He says because ube is so popular, he wants to incorporate the flavor in new products he’s developing. One menu item he recently launched and has been especially popular with ube, involves hot pressing a scoop of gelato between Hawaiian sweet buns.

“When people try that flavor, it’s just so soothing, delicious and creamy,” he says.

Veskosky says ube’s appeal is broad. While Filipinos are more knowledgeable about the purple yam, the people who are interested in trying it, come from across cultural backgrounds.

Though ube can connect to people outside of the culture, for Dimapasok, the flavor’s essence is quintessentially Filipino.

“I see purple, I see ube, I see Filipino people,” says Dimapasok. “We're pretty crazy; we're pretty colorful as a culture and adaptable in a lot of ways. For me it reminds of home, it reminds me of how my mom was and how it was eating at my [grandmother’s] house.”

Dimapasok says ube has become a symbol of a resilient diaspora, a culture that can be found all over the world.

“There’s a lot of Filipino overseas workers all around the world, and wherever you put a Filipino, they adapt, they learn the lifestyle, they adopt the language,” she says.

This is especially important during the current political climate in the United States, Dimapasok says, when nationalistic rhetoric seems to be on the rise. And anything that is different or from the outside is deemed worthy of more scrutiny.

“I want [people] to learn that …. more than just the food, we're good people,” she says. “And there's so much that we have to offer. We're here to stay;our food is here to stay.”

Top Image: Ube Purple Crumb Cake Donut from DK's Donuts | Marnette Federis

 

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