• Pastry chef Miko Aspiras makes eye-popping creations with ube. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
At this year's Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, vivid purple desserts from the Philippines make a special appearance.
Yasmin Newman

2 Mar 2020 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2020 - 10:57 AM

In 2018, a bright purple yam took the dessert world by storm.

Vibrantly coloured, it followed in the footsteps of matcha, turmeric and charcoal, starring in soft serves, doughnuts, cupcakes and pies from Los Angeles to Sydney. 

Ube macapuno cake: a sight for sore eyes, and it sure tastes good too.

That yam? It's ube, a root vegetable native to the Philippines and long used in our desserts for its delicate, earthy flavour, and striking colour. 

I covered the fanfare here at SBS Food. I wrote about it in 7000 Islands: Cherished Recipes and Stories from the Philippines and in a new cookbook on Filipino food coming later this year. 

But even as a proud Filipino food ambassador, I never would have guessed ube would catapult Filipino food and our enthralling desserts onto the world stage.

Ube (yam) sweets are a key component of the glorious history of Filipino desserts:

The Philippines has a rich and historic dessert culture – part native, part European, and a vestige of the vast sugar plantations established during Spanish colonial rule.

"The Philippines has a rich and historic dessert culture."

While indigenous cakes were made with the golden, semi-refined sugars of native palm sap, much of the Philippines' early wealth was built on the back of sugarcane. This goes a long way to explain the enduring Filipino sweet tooth and mastery of all things baked (it also explains our love for rum). 

Customers drive 3.5 hours to eat at this Filipino grocer
Anyone can visit this small grocer for a taste of authentic Filipino food.

As sugarcane farming flourished, colonial Spanish traditions mixed with local panache: sans rival, a torte of meringue and buttercream laced with cashews; ube makapuno, a towering chiffon cake layered with candied coconut and whipped cream; ensaymada, brioche knots brandished with lashings of creamed butter and sharp cheese; leche flan, creme caramel with a hint of native lime and enriched with extra egg yolks (the egg-white overflow used as a component of mortar to build churches). 

With the US occupation, we adapted Americana classics to our tastes: pies filled with custard and young coconut (buko pie); icebox desserts were layered with sun-drenched mangoes (mango float) and upside-down cakes topped with hand-cut rings of golden pineapple. 

Kakanin, our sweet go-to for merienda (afternoon tea), is an enduring celebration of our native heritage. Stemming from the word kanin, meaning rice, it's a catch-all term for all manner of gloriously sticky glutinous rice cakes smothered in caramel-y muscovado sugar. It also as encompasses desserts made from root vegetables, including the transcendent cassava cake. So delicious and unusually textured (springy, elastic, creamy) is the dessert, my mum is famously known as the 'Cassava Queen' in her circle, with continuous pleas for it from friends each time a birthday swings around. 

Outside of the Philippines, our best-known dessert might be halo-halo - a mountain of shaved ice drenched in just-sweet evaporated milk.

The refreshing dessert-cum-drink is a descendant of Japanese kakigori, with a kaleidoscope of mix-ins – coconut jelly, leche flan, candied beans and toasted green rice flakes (pinipig), to name a few – for a colourful, unmistakable Filipino flavour. It's arguably our most-loved, consumed daily as a reprieve from the tropical heat. 

Last year, it was Filipino chocolate's turn to steal headlines. Taking out one of the top gongs at the International Cocoa Awards in Paris, single-origin Auro Chocolate supplanted long-time winners and even turned stiff European chocolatier heads.

The Philippines is one of the oldest homes of cacao thanks to the centuries-long galleon trade with Mexico during Spanish rule. But in recent years, young players such as Auro have been championing the industry, establishing better work and pay practices and supporting innovation.  

When you insult Filipino food, you insult Filipino culture
Kate Walton tweeted that Filipino food was "bland" and the "worst in the region". But what do Filipino's think about that?

You don't have to dig far below the surface to find that behind these Filipino dessert 'discoveries', it's actually passionate Filipinos fuelling the fire.

That ube awakening? It kicked off in New York with Manila Social Club's cristal ube doughnut, then Maharlika's ube cheesecake.

In London, Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream is making waves, while in Oz, Donut Papi's queso and yema, Gelato Messina's banana turon and Lune's pan de coco croissant all have mouths salivating.  

Come March 23, I'll take the stage at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival for Cakes & Chikahan, a one-night-only dessert degustation exploring Filipino sweet flavours.

Joining me is Miko Aspiras, executive pastry chef at Sydney Hilton, and Santiago Cuyugan, head chocolatier at Melbourne's Bibelot and 2017 Savour Patissier of the Year. Grace Guinto of Sweet Cora Cakes and The Entree. Pinays, the Filipino culture and advocacy group behind the event, will also feature.  

How to cook Filipino
Filipino cuisine takes its influences from a number of cultures, mainly Chinese and Spanish. Before Spanish colonies settled in the region, the produce available in the Philippines, as well as the methods used to cook it, came from neighbouring China. Rice was widely cultivated and ingredients such as soy sauce, tofu and bean sprouts were traded into the Philippines. When the Spanish arrived, they brought supplies from the Americas such as corn, tomatoes and potatoes, and introduced different styles of cooking, such as frying. The Filipino longanisa sausage is very similar to the Spanish chorizo. Today, the Philippines is known for its sweet, sour and salty cuisine, and communal way of eating.

Over three courses and nine desserts, native, colonial and modern Filipino desserts will be on display.

The menu is still in R&D, but expect the likes of a warm, soft and buttery ensaymada stuffed with pili nut and chocolate ganache, corned ube with silky corn mousseline, light-as-air ube sponge, and that infamous cassava cake. 

It's a sign of the times that Filipino desserts are among the top events to see at an international food festival. No doubt we'll be seeing more of them steal the sweet spotlight soon. 

In this column, 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. 

Love the story? Don't miss Yasmin Newman's next Dessert Date. Follow her here: Facebook @YasminNewman and Instagram @yasmin_newman.

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Filipino sweet sticky rice cakes (suman sa lihiya)

Sticky rice cakes abound throughout South East Asia. In the Philippines, eating the local variation, known as suman, is a national pastime. Serve with latik sauce (see recipe below) or a simple mixture of sugar and grated coconut.