Ube: From pet vine to culinary star

Published July 16, 2020, 11:53 AM

by Sol Vanzi

The long vine of the purple yam’s influence on Filipino household and cuisine.

Ube halaya (Photo by Obsidian Soul)

The purple yam we all know as ube is currently the most popular agricultural product, appearing in many new culinary creations. This comes as no surprise; ube has always been considered well above the other “ordinary” root crops.

While other root crops (cassava, camote, and gabi) are simply boiled or made into inexpensive suman, ube is the only tuber that’s made into ice cream and bottled as an expensive dessert jam.


I have known ube all my life. In the 1950s, all the households in our barrio had ube vines planted in big cooking oil tin cans. They were treated like pets by children, who had bets on which vine would produce the biggest, most purple root. To make this happen, we spent hours gathering good farm soil, passing the soil through a wire sieve to eliminate rocks that could stunt or deform the tubers.

Growing ube in tin cans saved the vines and roots from rodents and other pests. Snails were easy to spot and eliminate. During floods, the cans were simply lifted and moved to higher ground. Organic soil enrichers were spread at the base of the vines, to be absorbed gradually without competing weeds.

The tin cans were placed beside a main post of the house or at the base of a tree, where they were allowed to creep up to rooftops and treetops until it was time to harvest them. Ube is much in demand during Holy Week, the town fiesta, All Saints Day, and Christmas. After the harvest small knobs of the roots were set aside as seeds for the next crop.

Good Shepherd ube jam (Photo from Baguio Good Shepherd Ube Jam Facebook)


It is safe to speculate that more than 50 percent of ube winds up as halaya, a deep purple thick jam sweetened with condensed milk and enriched with butter and pure coconut milk. Halaya shares top billing with leche flan as a must-have dessert for special occasions. The duo also tops the best halo-halo creations. Ask anyone what ube tastes like and the most likely answer would be halaya.

So what does ube taste like? Boiled ube has a pleasant earthy flavor and a slight hint of sweet vanilla aroma. It does not taste like halaya at all!

Its flesh is smooth, almost devoid of thread-like fibers characteristic of other tubers. It is not always purple; some varieties are pale lavender. A few are even the color of ivory.


A pandemic phenomenon is the rapid spread of a new kind of bread—the ube pandesal, which has drawn very strong reactions. Some people absolutely love it, while others decry what they consider a blatant desecration of a centuries-old icon.

Pandesal was introduced by the Spanish colonizers who first landed on our shores in 1521. Since then, it has spread throughout the islands and became the breakfast of choice of the rich and poor alike, changing very little over the centuries… until ube pandesal came along.

What is ube pandesal? It depends who you ask. There are as many variations as there are bakers. Most have dark violet dough achieved by mixing ube powder or ube flour into regular pandesal wheat flour dough. Before the pandesal is baked, it is filled with halaya and cheese (cheddar, quickmelt, or cream cheese).

How popular is ube pandesal? Take a look around and judge for yourself. It is one of the hottest topics on social media. Home bakers enjoy brisk sales offering it on the internet. Convenience stores carry it, piping hot from the oven.

In the not-too-distant future, violet could be the predominant color of an entire gourmet meal. Ube prawn chowder, ube fritters, ube gnocchi, ube ravioli, ube cheesecake, ube ice cream.