Native to the Philippines, ube (Tagalog for tuber and pronounced OO-beh) is a purple yam that has played a central role in local food culture for more than four centuries, and has been gaining popularity on global menus and Instagram feeds in recent times. With its delicious and unique taste, beautiful color, and its properties as a plant-based functional food, ube could just be the most nutritious and delicious purple-promise for global foodies in 2023.
Americans first learned about ube in 2015, when Miami-based Filipino eatery, Manila Social Club launched a “gold-ube donut, adorned with icing made with Cristal champagne and filled with an ube mousse, champagne jelly, and covered with 24k Gold” at $100 per donut.
The purple tuber experienced another surge in popularity during 2020, when Filipinos in the diaspora who were struggling with the social and mobility effects of COVID-19 began to yearn for a taste of home.
“When we crave for the sweet familiarity of home, we turn to ube in all its sticky, baked, steamed, milky, and molded expressions,” says Meryenda, a newsletter exploring the complexities of Philippine culture and diasporic food ways. According to author, Jessica Hernandez, “ube is thriving more than ever in the midst of a cultural reckoning and reclamation” and the tuber has even scored its own annual festival by the name of Yum Yams in San Francisco.
From the province of Bohol, where it is primarily grown, to Instagram and beyond, ube has created a massive purple explosion around the world.
The Wicked Noodle and Mashed predict that ube will be a huge hit in 2023 and WGSN Food & Drink Influencer Map, which looks at trending food and drink topics, has tracked an increase in the popularity of the tuber, with ube post-engagement rising from 331k in 2018 to 444k in 2021, with a peak in the third quarter of 2021.
Communications firms af&co and Carbonate agree. Their 2023 Trends Report has declared Filipino as the cuisine of the year with ube being listed among the food trend predictions, stating that “ube is ubiquitous.”
The report highlights The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort’s Ube Pancakes with ube coconut cream and fresh berries, Señor Sisig in San Francisco’s Ube Horchata beverage and The Baldwin Bar in Massachusetts’ Halo Halo cocktail which combines ube with light rum, cachaça, coconut milk, condensed milk, pineapple and lime.
“Something that once seemed foreign is now very approachable,” says Leith Steel, senior strategist at Carbonate, of the purple tuber.
And if Trader Joes’ products are any reflection of what’s trending, then ube is surely the latest “it” ingredient. An ube spread, made of puréed ube, cream, butter, coconut cream, cream, sugar, sea salt and purple carrot juice, recently joined the list of ube products produced by the U.S. grocery brand, among them a gluten free Ube Mochi Pancake & Waffle Mix and Ube Mochi, a sweet ube ice cream enveloped in a rice-flour-based, purple-hued (with grape and red cabbage extract and beet juice) mochi wrapper.
Hilton’s Chef Warren Brown, of the Conrad in Manila likens the sweet rich flavor of ube to white chocolate and vanilla, and says that it has “a slightly nutty taste, similar to pistachios.” His restaurant serves Ube Champorado, a Filipino sweet porridge, Ube Nacapuno cake, a chiffon cake, and Ube Pandesal with cheese.
Hilton hotels’ food and beverage blog for the month of November 2022 says that “as striking purple dishes containing ube are taking social media by storm, an increasing number of chefs around the world are becoming inspired to experiment with ube in new dishes.” Hilton Waikoloa Village offers Ube Malasadas, a fried type of doughnut using flattened rounds of yeast dough, using ube as a primary ingredient, and Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Hawaii provides coffee lovers with the option of an ube latte.
WSGN says that “Innovators are pairing ube’s earthy vanilla notes with creamy textures and flavors from custard to coconut, and also applying it in savory food and snacks.” The tuber’s moist texture also makes it a better option to alternatives such as sweet potato.
It’s no wonder that ube pastries and desserts are cropping up all over the place. Gwenie’s Pastries in Maryland are a favorite spot for ube cupcakes and Ober Here, a Texas-based Filipino rice bowl restaurant, offers Ube Flan Cookies filled with custard, while Señor Sisig in San Francisco offers Ube-Macapuno Churros.
In the Philippines, ube is best known for its use in halaya or jam. Halaya is used in a number of different culinary applications, such as in ensaymada, a sweet pastry comparable to fluffy brioche bread.
Another popular sweet treat is the cool and refreshing Halo-Halo, made with shaved ice mixed fruit, boiled sweetened white beans, milk, and topped with purple yam, crème caramel, and ice cream.
And if you have a thing for sweet treats, you’ll love the Ube Collada flavor from ice cream brand Aubi & Ramsa— a collaboration with Don Papa Rum, the first super-premium rum from the Philippines. Proceeds from the sales of Ube Collada will benefit the Talarak Foundation, which works to conserve the native wildlife of Negros, Philippines, where Don Papa originates.
On the savory side, and in keeping with one of Whole Foods’ top projected food trends for 2023— pastas made from produce— Hawaii 7-Eleven stores are selling a new shrimp alfredo ube pasta. The ube pasta is made fresh in the community of Kapolei in Oʻahu and is exclusively sold in all sixty-five 7-Eleven’s in Hawaii. Also in Hawaii, Chef Millie Chan offers fresh Hokkaido-style ramen noodles made of ube at her restaurant, Adela’s Country Eatery.
Elsewhere, ube has become a popular ingredient in breads and hamburger buns, as well as in plant-based burgers.
Ube is also becoming a popular savory snack. Ube chips made with coconut oil can be purchased from Namaste Organic and other specialty retailers.
Over the years, ube’s popularity has grown due to its rich purple color and Instagram-appeal.
“The pleasant sweet flavor and eye-catching hue has propelled this ingredient’s popularity on Instagram with chefs embracing ways to push the color further forward,” says af&co and Carbonate’s 2023 trends report.
According to global nutrition company, ADM, the 2023 Color of the Year will be Digital Lavender, reflecting consumers’ need to “shift their mood toward brighter and lighter moments.” ADM also shares that 74% of global consumers are liking food and drink products with new and unusual or exotic flavors and “turn up the volume colors” such as ube.
The high anthocyanin content of purple yams which is responsible for its purple hue. But aside from making it an Instagram foodie favorite, this naturally occurring phytochemical is one of the most important reasons why ube is so beneficial for health and is known to have a variety of curative and preventive effects. Several studies have shown that anthocyanins protect the human body from diabetes, cancer, inflammation, infection caused by microbes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Ube is also known as a good source of fiber, protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin A.
Ube also aligns with another food forward trend of 2023— climate friendly foods. Meryenda shares a Bohol legend that states “when drought swept the land and famine persisted, ube was the sole crop that survived to provide Boholanos nourishment. Ube was so venerated that Boholanos would kiss ube that accidentally fell to the ground and apologized, a sign of respect honoring the food given to them by Bathala, originator and ruler of the universe in ancient Tagalog theology.”
But while the crop is climate resilient, it has not been immune to the impacts of climate change. In 2019, Good Shepherd, a Filipino brand known for its purple ube jam, declared that it would need to shift to the use of white yams in its products due to climate-related constraints related to growing the purple version.
“Due to changing climate, our ube farmers are having difficulty growing ube,” it said in a Facebook post. “It has been our struggle in the recent years to find a stable supply. And in the past weeks there were none.”
Due to dwindling local production and the need to meet export demands, ube flavoring and color has become common in the Asian country. Scarcity in supply of the crop has also resulted in high prices.
FEATR, a digital video channel dedicated to food, travel and Filipino culture, recently released a documentary entitled “Is Ube Being Stolen from the Philippines?” which explores the story of ube and its role in the livelihood of Filipinos locally and abroad. It reveals that in the midst of all of the global hysteria, many Filipinos are concerned that their indigenous tuber will lose its strong Filipino identity.
But despite the controversy, the global acclaim of ube has not wavered… and Filipino chefs, food anthropologists, documentarists and advocates are responding.
Jeremy Villanueva, executive chef at Romulo Café, an award-winning Filipino restaurant in London, told BBC in 2021:
“It’s not just a gimmick of something purple. There’s a soul to its consumption. It’s part of the culture, it’s part of our heritage… Ube for me is not a fad. Even if it passes, it will still be part of our culture.”
The message is clear: As the popularity of ube grows, responsible foodies should maintain awareness of the cultural connection between this trendy food and its rich Filipino culinary history.