U be (dioscorea alata), also known as purple yam, is often mistaken for its more mainstream counterparts, like taro and Okinawa sweet potato. While you’re more likely to spot a pack of gourmet taro crisps at the deli or pick up some Okinawa sweet potatoes at a farmer’s market, you shouldn’t stop there when it comes to root vegetables of the purple variety. There are over 600 varieties of yams and 95% of these are grown in Africa. Unlike ‘regular’ yams, Ube grows on a vine above the ground, surrounded by a thick foliage of heart shaped leaves. This vegetable is a major crop and food source in the Philippines. While it is not grown in similar quantities as African yams, such as dioscorea rotundata, the ‘white yam’, it has the widest distribution of any cultivated yam around the world, being produced in Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa and the West Indies.
In the English language alone, the purple yam has a plethora of names, including ‘the greater yam’ and the ‘Guyana arrowroot’. Dip a toe into other languages and cultures and you will find it under a multitude of exuberant terms; in Sri Lanka, ‘rasa valli kilangu’, in Vietnam, ‘khoai mỡ’ and in Southern Nigeria, it is simply known as ji. There is well known saying that reads, ‘He who has many names is much loved’. These words have a pleasing resonance with ube and its many titles.
Ube, with its characteristic violet hue, touts a subtle sweetness that’s arguably most appreciated in the Philippines. A quick search on Google will substantiate this claim; the Filipinos can’t get enough of this lavender treat. Ube predominantly makes its way onto the Filipino dining table by way of desserts. A variety of the nation’s confectionery is made from the tuber, including the popular ube halaya, a type of jelly. Ube halaya is prepared by boiling the yam in water for 30 minutes, followed by peeling and grating finely. The grated yam is then placed in melted butter, condensed milk, and vanilla extract. After mixing everything together for another 30 minutes – or until the mixture is sticky – evaporated milk is added.
This creamy, gelatinous dish is used as a base for other sweets, paired with the likes of macapuno (sweetened coconut), flan, and halo halo (shaved ice with condensed milk). There’s also ube puto (steamed rice cake), ube silvanas (buttercream sandwiched between wafers), and of course, ube ice cream.
Ube ice cream may not exist in the current Häagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s lineup, but it should. In much the same way that Green Tea and Red Bean are now readily accepted as interesting options amongst the usual suspects of vanilla and chocolate chip, ube is bound to end up in our freezers. When it comes to trying out new flavours, ice cream is the perfect gateway food, and given its characteristic and instantly recognisable tint, it seems the obvious route for this curiously colourful root vegetable.