Ube isn’t exactly the newest food trend anymore, but it’s getting more popular by the year. Ube is the iconic purple yam from the Philippines, not to be confused with the taro flavor seen in bubble tea shops.
Ube, also known as purple yam, originates from the Philippines, where it’s often used in baked goods and desserts. You’ll often find it as a jam inside of or on top of traditional pastries like mamón, Filipino sponge cake, or ensaymada, bread rolls covered in sugar, butter and grated cheese. Ube is also a popular ice cream flavor (as the United States should already know) and an essential ingredient in halo-halo, a topping-filled Filipino shaved ice.
Ube has been available in Asian grocery stores for years. It might be sitting in a refrigerated, ice-covered bag, in a jar in the Filipino foods aisle or the produce section next to all the other tubers and roots like taro. I’ve bought frozen bags of ube halaya, also known as mashed purple yam mixed with milk and sweetener, from local grocery stores for food experiments.
As a Filipino American, I’ve had a childhood full of ube-flavored candies, all with that purplish color and creamy, nutty taste. But then, suddenly, it started to hit the mainstream media.
Paste Magazine first wrote about the ingredient in 2016 after Manila Social Club, a Filipino eatery in Miami, started selling ube donuts topped with 24-carat gold for $100 each. Since then, the yam has appeared in more and more specialty shops until it became even more popular than vanilla. At this point, it’s on its way to becoming the new matcha.
Trader Joe’s helped integrate the purple yam into the mainstream when it introduced its first ube product in 2019. It started with its own version of ube ice cream, which quickly became a social media sensation thanks to the rave reviews about its flavor, which Trader Joe’s described as a “cross between vanilla and pistachio with a hint of coconut,” not to mention its photogenic color. The grocery chain later introduced other ube products, like tea cookies and mochi pancake and waffle mix made with the yam. Most recently, it added a spread similar to ube halaya to its catalog.
Even when the seasonal ube products hit the shelves today, food writers report their arduous journeys to find them because they sell out so quickly. Some Trader Joe’s locations even needed to put a hard limit of only two ube mochi pancake and waffle mixes per customer. Even with the hype, some customers complain about the diluted flavor compared to the real thing. However, others point out that the Trader Joe’s products have exposed people to ube who may not have ever had a chance to try it otherwise.
The COVID-19 pandemic also helped spur the purple yam’s continued success in 2020. Ube cheese pandesal, a Filipino bread roll filled with cheese and yam, became a lockdown food trend along with the likes of dalgona coffee and baked sushi. Pinoy news articles still recall the peak of when ube cheese pandesal hit the international mainstream.
Jollibee, a global Filipino fast food chain, even released an ube cheese pie as a tribute to the trend. In 2020, it brought its seasonal ube pie overseas to select locations, including New York, California and Illinois. Jollibee’s pie boasted the same crispy crust as its fan-favorite peach-mango pie, except it was stuffed with 100% ube instead of the typical fruity filling.
Other companies like 7/11 even followed suit with shrimp alfredo ube pasta, which included handmade ube-flavored noodles. 7/11’s ube specialty notably came before the WGSN’s forecast about 2023 being the year to try ube in savory dishes.
Filipinos don’t typically use the yam in savory dishes, though. There’s ube sinigang, where you replace the typical radish or taro with ube to add creaminess and tone down the iconic acidity of the tamarind stew. However, regular pork sinigang without the ube is much more common.
Just last year, Food & Wine Magazine featured an ube tocino burger on its cover page. In this case, chefs Tom Cunanan and Paolo Dungca based the burger on a popular Filipino dish called the chori burger (short for chorizo burger) and added their own twist to it based on Dungca’s childhood memories of eating tocino with garlic rice for breakfast. The purple yam-infused buns complemented a slew of other flavors like caramelized pineapple and a secret sauce that blended mayo and banana ketchup.
The ube fanatics could be onto something. Adding purple yam to more foods means more opportunities for consumers to get to know the ingredient. We already know about ube ice cream, so why not try ube Spam musubi made with ube-infused rice?
This iconic ingredient is still gaining popularity for a couple of reasons. It isn’t just about being an Instagrammable ingredient, even though that definitely helps its visibility. It’s also a satisfyingly sweet yet versatile flavor that effortlessly blends into countless desserts and pastries, and it’s on its way to appearing in even more exciting combinations. Ube isn’t just a Filipino food anymore—it’s a global one.