Just mention the word ube and Filipinos’ eyes light up; the country’s prized purple tuber stars in a range of sweet favourites, from jam and ice cream to my personal favourite, cake. Until recently, it was rarely spotted outside of the homeland and neighbouring Asia, but now sweet purveyors in the US and beyond are tapping the ingredient for its striking good looks – and Instagram is going wild for it.
The recent rise of ube (pronounced oo-beh and also known as purple yam) can be traced to New York’s Manila Social Club, where Filipino-American chef Bjorn DelaCruz’s $100 gold-flecked, Cristal champagne and ube mousse doughnut, naturally, caught attention.
Now, you can find ube-infused desserts throughout New York City, from Soft Swerve’s ube soft serve-topped cupcakes to New Territories’ ube freakshake. And across America, too. Sightings have been made in LA, San Fran and north-of-the-border in Toronto.
Much like matcha – another age-old ingredient enjoying new-world fame – ube’s alluring purple hue is, when respected, all-natural.
“It’s also rare,” says Nick Shippers of the vegetable’s depth of colour. He runs New York’s Ube Kitchen, a popular plant-based dessert stall at Smorgasburg that champions purple yam. “Taro and ube are commonly confused but taro still requires food colouring to match the natural purple of ube.”
But while our current fascination with a rainbow of colours is part of ube’s appeal, it’s also the flavour, which for me is unique, subtle and beguiling. “You could describe it as white chocolate with earthy undertones,” says Nick. Ube also pairs well with dessert favourites, such as coconut and black sesame.
Filipino food has long been at the tipping point. Perhaps ube is the surprise ingredient that will take it over the line? Search #ube on Instagram for more inspiration and buy it pre-cooked and frozen from Filipino food stores to try in your own purple dessert sensation.
In my column, Dessert Date, I scour bakeries, patisseries and dessert joints from around the world for the hottest sweet trends, up-and-coming ingredients and game-changing pastry techniques.