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Colour the World Purple: The Global Journey of Ube, the Philippines’ Beloved Purple Yam

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Ube (pronounced OO-beh), scientifically known as dioscorea alata, is a sweet purple yam indigenous to the Philippines. It stands out as one of the most prized species among the 600 species of the dioscorea genus, with 150 of these cultivated for consumption. Celebrated as a staple ingredient in Filipino cuisine, ube has spread globally through human migration, acquiring various names such as ratalu, khoai mỡ, ji abana, winged yam, purple yam, water yam, and simply, yam. 

This climbing herb produces tubers from light flesh to deep purple in colour with varying shapes of round, cylindrical, or irregular forms. The exterior of fresh ube resembles greyish-brown bark, encasing a moisture-rich, purple flesh when sliced open.

Ube is often confused with taro, but they are distinctly different in many ways.  Taro is part of the araceae family known as gabi in Tagalog. Both are grown in the Philippines, but their culinary uses differ also: ube is popular in sweet treats, whereas taro features in savoury Filipino dishes like laing and sinigang.

The Philippines boasts a variety of ube types and regional cultivars, such as kinampay, sampero, zambal, and mindoro. These varieties differ in shape, color, aroma, and taste. The kinampay variety, originating from Bohol in the central Philippines, is particularly renowned for its rich color, aromatic scent, and subtly nutty, vanilla-like flavor, earning it the moniker “Queen of Philippine Yams.”

Ube has a significant place in Philippine history. Archaeological findings at the Ille Cave site in Palawan, Philippines, have unearthed ube remains dating back to 11,000 BC. Filipino food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria notes that the first Tagalog and Spanish dictionary, published in 1613, initially mentioned ube (uvi) as a type of camote (sweet potato) in the convolvulaceae family, before its reclassification as a yam in the dioscorea family.

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In Central Visayas, during a pre-Hispanic drought, ube was the sole surviving crop in the municipalities of Dawis, Panglao, and Panghayon in Bohol, thus sustaining the locals. Consequently, it gained sacred status to the extent that dropping an ube necessitated an apologetic kiss to the tuber. This reverence is reflected in its inclusion in the Boholano Hymn.

Ube’s culinary appeal lies in its less sweet, denser profile compared to most sweet potato and yam varieties. Its starchy texture is conducive to absorbing various flavours, such as the richness of cream or the woodiness of coconut, while also imparting its subtle nuttiness. 

The origins of transforming ube into desserts like ube halaya are unclear, but such treats have long been a part of Filipino childhood, gracing occasions like town fiestas, birthdays, Christmas, and other celebrations. Ube’s simplicity and striking purple colour make it stand out.

Today, ube enhances dishes like halo-halo, bread, ice cream, flan, cookies, cakes, pastries, and other baked goods. It can be prepared in various ways: boiled, baked, mashed, or fried, and can replace other starchy vegetables in soups, stir-fries, and stews.

Ube Cake Roll   PHOTO Candice Bell/Getty Images
Ube Cake Roll PHOTO Candice Bell/Getty Images
Ube, a popular ingredient, adds vibrant colour and unique flavour to the classic Filipino dessert, halo-halo.
Ube, a popular ingredient, adds vibrant colour and unique flavour to the classic Filipino dessert, halo-halo.
Ube Pandesal, a cherished snack bread in Filipino cuisine
Ube Pandesal, a cherished snack bread in Filipino cuisine
Ube Halaya: A rich and creamy Filipino delicacy, celebrated for its vivid purple hue and sweet, velvety texture.
Ube Halaya: A rich and creamy Filipino delicacy, celebrated for its vivid purple hue and sweet, velvety texture.

Nutritionally, ube surpasses regular yams in antioxidant content. According to a study by Kansas University, ube helps prevent DNA damage, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers. Rich in Vitamins A, C, and E and high in potassium, ube also promotes probiotic bacteria growth due to its high fibre content. Its deep purple colour indicates a wealth of anthocyanins, which are known to help reverse cognitive and motor function decline.

As ube gains international popularity, Filipinos are proudly sharing their culinary heritage. With Filipino cuisine increasingly recognized globally, ube’s purple hue is enchanting adventurous eaters worldwide.

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