All hail ube, the culinary gem we took for granted

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are four reincarnations of ube in front of me, and so far I’m in purple heaven.

I took a bite of the warm ube pan de sal, breakfast rolls made from flour extracted from the dehydrated and ground flesh of the starchy ube. Amy Besa, a New York restaurateur who has brought Purple Yam into an unassuming corner in Malate, Manila, tells me this, her face lighting up as she feeds me a medley of merienda fare from her home-slash-restaurant. The soft, spherical, lavender rolls are tender and sweet, and pair well with the Mindanaoan butter and cheese, as well as the citrusy Benguet cherry jam, which were served along with the bread. The ube pan de sal baked in her restaurant abroad turned out grainy, Besa tells me. Here, baked in the Philippines, they taste better.

One of Besa’s pastry chefs, Agnes Lim, next brings out scoops of lavender ice cream in two separate bowls. The ice cream is an experiment on combining two local ube varieties in one dessert: the first from a deep purple variety, the second from a sapiro variety, as Besa and Lim would tell me, with a disclaimer that they do not profess to know all varieties and therefore might be mistaken. (More on varieties later.) We dig in the ice cream. “It’s gamey,” Besa repeatedly says. While she discusses the milk mixed with the ice cream with her pastry chef, I continue scooping spoonfuls of the cold delicacy into my mouth, conceding that the milk was kind of overpowering. But it was delicious, anyway. It became even more so after I set it aside for an hour, the ice cream not quite melting but softening to assume the texture of a creamy haleya (as spelled in Besa's book “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”; also referred to as halaya).

The vibrant purple hue, as seen in these ube cupcakes from Wildflour, makes anything flavored with ube stand out, perfect for those who like to make art with their food. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

The haleya served next, however, is the not the haleya I had grown up knowing. It’s just sugar and water, says Besa, and has none of the milky transcendence familiar to ube jam spoon-lickers everywhere. The haleya that day was ube at its purest, one that allows you to concentrate on the subtlety of the ube taste, without another ingredient overpowering it. Not that ube, as a flavor, easily gives way. When Lim came back with a lightly browned ube-coconut pie, we slice it open to reveal the gooey coconut and the bottom ube layer settled inside. The pie is made from young coconut, says Besa. She asks me: “Could you taste the ube?” and I immediately say yes. From that point on, I knew I could never fully enjoy a buko pie again without slathering it first with haleya.

Luckily, searching for ube in the Philippines is not a problem. It can grow anywhere. But while ube is ubiquitous in the country, the ube as we know it is just one variety among many, what with its origins and composition enveloped in some kind of blissfully ignorant shroud we may have put upon ourselves. Imagine for one second what ube looks like. Do you see purple putong ube, topped with cheese, the stuff of your childhood merienda? Do you see haleya by the jar, souvenirs from summertime treks to Baguio? Or perhaps you see the flaky ube hopia, its velvety filling neatly outlining the shape of your teeth in the next bite. You might see a delectable ube cupcake, its cream topping drizzled with precious purple bits. You might see ube pastillas. Ube otap. Ube polvoron. Ube frappe. Ube tart. Ube donuts. Ube cheesecake. Ube cinnamon roll. All of them shockingly purple, a visual feast for chronic Instagram users, who have all taken to the internet to express their love for this, as Paste magazine calls it, “breakout food.”

The ube haleya (or halaya) is arguably the quintessential Filipino ube dessert. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

For all its newfound fame, ube — in its raw form — is ugly. It looks like poop at its worst, and resembles a shapeless, hardened piece of rock at its best. Where we get the starchy flesh from is a tuber: technically not a root, but an expanded stem of a plant, where its nutrients are stored. There are many existing types of ube in the Philippines, including three varieties as recommended and approved by the National Seed Industry Council: Basco ubi (whose cortex has a white-purplish tinge), Zambales ubi (purple cortex), Leyte ubi (cream to pink cortex with white flesh), and the original variety called kinampay, known for its sweet aroma and remarkable taste, dubbed as the “queen of Philippine yams.” The kinampay itself includes five further recommended varieties, whose flesh occur in various degrees of red, purple, and white: the original kinampay, kabus-ok, tamisan, binanag, and binato. Others include the varieties of baligonhon (in Bohol), binunas, gimnay, sampero, and iniling. Some local cultivars grown by farmers include binalog, ubsah, appari, negro, alabat, and kameral. In Los Baños, Laguna, where I meet Juanita Calibo, a senior agriculturist in the Bureau of Plant Industry, she says there are even vendors who call the native ubi as hinaligi, because it resembles a post or a wall structure. This is distinct from the ube of Mulanay, Quezon, which I learn is somewhat thin and elongated.

Calibo took me through her botanical projects in the bureau, housed in several greenhouses labelled “Plant Genetic Resources.” In a small ube nursery, she has set up different methods by which the ube could thrive. Calibo says the fastest way to grow ube is by employing rapid tissue culture, where the top of an ube tuber (from where the main shoot grows) is cut then transferred to a test tube with agar. She has ongoing experiments with carefully carved setts (a collection of small roots) removed from tubers with developed buds, seeds, and cuttings, all of which she rubs with ash, to be planted in the soil later on. You can either rub the cut parts with ash as the traditional farmers do, says Calibo (to stave off diseases), but most agriculturists will recommend fungicide.

The ube tubers and seedlings she has showed me are of the kinampay and Mulanay variety. I take both in my hands, and in my fascination forget about the various things still crawling around the tuber harvested from the soil. But these are both ube, Calibo reassures me. She nonchalantly points out some ube tubers hanging from the vines nearby, and I am pleasantly surprised to know that ube also grows as an aerial tuber, with hanging bulbils.

One can plant ube — known scientifically as dioscorea alata — anywhere in the Philippines, which accounts for its many regional varieties. But while ube may thrive under a wide range of soil types and climates, it grows optimally in sandy or silt loam, since the loose soil allows the tuber some space to expand. One should also be careful not to let the tuber itself be exposed to sunlight, as Calibo believes this slows the production of the pigment anthocyanin, which gives some ube varieties its vibrant purple color. It may take up to eight months for purple yams to fully grow, although Calibo is experimenting on the possibility of rapid growth of only six months. Overall, the ube is not difficult to take care of, since it is tolerant of adverse conditions such as drought and risks of pest infestations. It can be planted anytime of the year, but most experienced growers will wait until after the rainy season, since a deluge, left unchecked, will cause the ube to rot.

Ube comes in many forms, and continues to pervade local and international cuisine. One can enjoy it as a drink, in the form of ube frappe, available in some coffee shops. Or one can simply enjoy it as a filling, lightly-flavored cake, such as this one from Wildflour. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Doreen Fernandez, the seminal Filipino food writer and historian, defines ube as a “purple yam, usually used in the making of sweets,” also referred to as camote morado. She makes a careful caveat to distinguish it from camote blanco (the sweet potato, locally called camote), which originated from Mexico. The ube is uniquely Filipino. Besa confirms this in her book, “Memories of Philippine Kitchens,” where she emphasizes that it is not to be confused with taro or any other purple potato or tuber.

“The problem with us Filipinos, and that includes all of us,” says Besa, as I ask her about ube, “is that we really don’t know what we have.” The ube of our memories and traditions are distinct and diverse — whether it be the haleya of Christmas past or the ice cream of our childhoods — but most will probably not bother to examine the tuber up close. As an education, Besa (along with Lim, her pastry chef) lays two varieties of ube on the table, both a deep purple variety, one from Davao, and the other from Benguet. Unsliced and unpeeled, the earthy tubers are not nice to look at, their hardness seemingly enough to inflict a significant wound in case I might want to use them as an emergency weapon.

Seeing as there is no apparent danger, I follow Besa’s suggestion to smell the ube, sliced to reveal its purple core and still moist with tiny water droplets. She stressed that the tuber has a fragrance. Showing me a photo of the sapiro ube variety (which might be the same one as the sampero variety, as I clarified with Calibo, the agriculturist), Besa recalls slicing open a sapiro and breathing in its fragrant pandan aroma as it wafted all over her kitchen. But not all sapiros are like that, adds Besa. Neither are all ube varieties the same. The tuber I inhaled with gusto only has a very subtle vanilla-like smell. “That’s what I want Filipinos to understand, to appreciate this ube,” she says. “They are very, very different, and there are so many varieties.”

One of the many kinds of processed ube you can eat is the ube polvoron. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

“We treasure, we like to respect the integrity of the ube,” says Besa, before the haleya was served. “So that when we cook it, when we make it to haleya, we don’t do anything to it. We just add water and sugar.” She adds, “All these things, for me — putting evaporated milk and all that — hindi mo na makukuha yung lasa. What people really know as haleya is the taste of evaporated milk and sugar, which has some flavoring of ube.”

This confusion of the palate may alienate the eater from knowing the ube and its many tastes through its array of varieties. Consider the many ube foodstuff available in the market, and the ingredient list accompanying them: an ube pastillas product I recently bought from an organic mart, for example, lists buffalo milk as its main ingredient, with “natural ube flavoring” listed at the very end. The pastillas was a deep purple, appetizing enough to make me scarf down one indulgently milky piece after the other. It was good, but I have to admit in retrospect that the ube was lost in the chewing.

Yet the flavor persists and is relentlessly marketed in various permutations everywhere. The golden cristal ube donut of New York’s Manila Social Club, which arguably initiated the mad rush over ube, has a gold-encrusted surface with a filling of ube mousse. They also have something called the “ube bae donuts.” There’s also the oddpocket ice cream sandwich, which is ube ice cream in between slices of hot brioche buns, conceptualized by Mission Chinese Food and Oddfellows Ice Cream Co. For more, all you have to do is type the hashtag #ube in Instagram. Locally, many recent food lists enumerate old homegrown favorites as ube concoctions to try, most of which had already existed way before that golden ube donut broke the internet.

The original ube variety called kinampay is known for its sweet aroma and remarkable taste, and is dubbed as the “queen of Philippine yams.” Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Back home, Michelle’s Homemade Putong Ube is a strong local food business built on a committed love for ube. Co-owner Michelle Concepcion-Reyes took liberties in experimenting with the putong ube recipe, which was never actually handed down to her by her mother-in-law, when she, along with her husband Eric, began to conceptualize the business in the late 90s. She struggled to get it right and almost gave up, until 1996, when she finally stumbled upon a buttery taste that she deemed even better than her mother-in-law’s recipe (who actually got it from someone else).

For 20 years now, the homemade business has been churning out not only putong ube but also haleya, sana banana chips, napoleones, barquiron, tablea, and even crispy dilis. They tried to export the putong ube abroad 10 to 12 years ago but stopped, due to problems in storing the puto while shipping. What is in export today is the sana banana chips, placed in the ethnic market abroad. “You’ll see Filipino goods in Chinese and Asian stores,” says Reyes. “We’re not in the mainstream … you’ll always see us in the alley.”

All of Michelle’s Homemade products are Filipino, and manufactured in a commissary along Domingo N. Guevarra Street in Mandaluyong. For the putong ube, she leads me to Rodita Gulmatico and Dondon delos Reyes, two longstanding employees in charge of baking the fresh putong ube every morning. Delos Reyes says they start out by peeling the yam (a process which may make the hands itch; Calibo recommends squeezing calamansi to counteract the slight toxin). The fresh ube is then grated in the afternoon and mixed into the galapong for baking the next day. In the morning, the deep purple liquid galapong is poured into small “sweets” (as Reyes calls the cups) and steamed for 20 minutes. Around the five-minute mark the galapong rises and its surface breaks into a three-way crisscross. Gulmatico takes a pair of gloves and expertly scoops out the dark purple kakanin, and neatly packs it in small boxes.

The ube is often confused with cassava, purple potato, and taro. Here, a bowl of mixed root chips, with the ube chips on top. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

The puto is indeed buttery, and tastes like a cake. But Reyes recognizes the difficulties in making customers discern the value of her product among many ube products available. “They always set aside the ube, because local lang siya,” says Reyes. “There’s no glamour in it.” In fact, Reyes says they have to make the packaging of the putong ube extraordinary, so it becomes “sosyal.” Ube is not given the proper attention it deserves, adds Reyes. “Unlike how it is being looked at today … unfortunately it had to be people in the U.S. who had to hype about it. Maybe we should put some gold in our ube,” she jokes. Ironically, while Michelle’s Homemade’s main product is the putong ube, the sana banana chips has overtaken it in sales. Reyes hopes that the renewed interest in ube will bring the spotlight back onto the pastry upon which the business was built.

In the Philippines, in fact, the purple yam is an important export banner crop, and in 2005, was cited as the only supplier in the world market. (Today, West Africa is the principal producer of yams on a global basis.) Calibo says that only the processed, powdered purple yam is exported, however, since there are gaps in storing the yam post-harvest. Nevertheless, there is a huge demand to export ube, a demand hampered by limited supply and production. Storage issues aside, the yam is a labor-intensive crop. Yam production has a lower yield per hectare as compared to cassava or sweet potato, requires a large amount of planting material, and has a relatively longer growing season. But there are efforts to boost the production of ube for its export potential, among them the use of tissue culture techniques and improved techniques in breaking tuber dormancy. Calibo also expects that the DAR’s focus on the internationally-recognized Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification — an export requirement — will help small-scale but capable ube farmers get into the global export market.

Doreen Fernandez, the seminal Filipino food writer and historian, defines ube as a “purple yam, usually used in the making of sweets." Ube is referred to as camote morado, which is different from camote blanco (the sweet potato, locally called camote), originating from Mexico. The ube is uniquely Filipino. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

At the peak of ube’s overdue introduction to the world as a Filipino ingredient, Besa, whose love for ube is reflected in the restaurants that she and her husband named after it, makes a case for going back to fresh, unprocessed food, on looking on “what grows around here” in order to appreciate local cuisine more. “We are surprised to find out how good they are [i.e., food from our environment], and they’re so much better than imported things,” she says. “The flavors are very varied and nuanced. I think we’re just beginning to learn that.”

It’s a good sign that ube is slowly making its way to the mainstream. Besa echoes Reyes, however, in that it is “unfortunate” that the popularity of ube is due to a trend of ube desserts flourishing abroad. “But we’ll take what we can get,” says Besa. “Let’s turn it around, and use it as an opportunity to treat this ingredient properly, not just an object of a trend or a fad — let’s make this into a permanent, ongoing desire for people to keep learning about the ube.”

My first exposure to ube irretrievably links me back to ima (my maternal grandmother’s sister) who, after each of our stays in her tiny stone house in Orani, Bataan, would prepare llaneras of ube haleya for us to take home. There I learned about the versatile ingredient, and how it is usually prepared in my mother’s province. My mother recalls being regularly summoned by ima to stir the ube, water, coconut milk, and sugar concoction in large metal pots of kawa or stainless pans of talyasi when she was a child. She continuously stirred for 60 or so minutes, stiff arms notwithstanding, lest she earn the ire of ima, who remains my favorite cook in the family and whose dishes I sorely miss in adulthood.

Back at Purple Yam, when Besa told me about the virtues of pure, sugar-and-water haleya in a world with multiplying ube transformations, I couldn’t help but remember ima’s haleya. Hers was divine, smooth and not so sweet, though it did have the added milk, which my tongue has grown accustomed to. I took a bite of the pure haleya before me, and I savored each spoonful for taking me back to carefree summer vacations mostly spent eating and visiting fish ponds in Orani. Food trends aside, I know this is what good food is supposed to do: displace you in space and time, to a cold kitchen with a warm stove, the ube haleya being stirred by your mother, where you belatedly realize an enormous love was made felt, in the simplest and quietest of ways.