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This Filipino Sweet Yam Is More Than a Pretty Purple Food

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It's been nearly two weeks since Refinery29's Kathryn Lindsay published an article declaring that "Ube Is The Latest Beautiful Food People Can't Stop Instagramming." And yet, to borrow a turn of phrase from this kind of criminal article, I can't stop thinking about it.

💜 Ice Cream ✔️ 🍁 Syrup ✔️ Sugar Coma 😵💯 📸: @scrumphsus #foodpourn #ube #icecream #brunch

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A photo posted by Food Pour-nographer 🍾 (@foodpourn) on

Ube, pronounced ooh-beh, is a sweet yam native to the Philippines. It's got a rich, intense purple hue. Ube's particular sweetness doesn't have any obvious analogs, though the root vegetable from which it's derived is a cousin to taro and sweet potato. Ube forms the base of a number of desserts eaten in the Philippines and its diaspora. A sampling of the desserts it's central to include halo-halo (literally "mix mix" in Tagalog), a frozen assortment of ice cream and fruit and jelly; ube bread; ube ice cream (pictured above); and ginatan, a warm pudding. No matter how it's cooked—steamed, mashed, ground into a paste—ube maintains its vivid coloring.

The Filipino Frozen Dessert More Irresistible Than an Ice Cream Sundae
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The Filipino Frozen Dessert More Irresistible Than an Ice Cream Sundae

None of this comes through in the Refinery29 article. Beyond the headline—taking someone else's food and reducing it to a temporally disposable trend—the content of the piece doesn't fare much better. Lindsay begins by informing us that the users of Instagram love aesthetically satiating food, and now "the internet"—collectively and homogeneously, as if it is a monolith that contains no Filipino users—has "discovered a purple vegetable that could be used in cocktails, ice cream, and even donuts." The article is couched in the language of discovery, as if Instagram's very own Vasco da Gamas have embarked upon this uncharted, exoticized frontier.

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So hot right now. #ube #purpleyam #purple #softserve #icecream

A photo posted by Carlo Go (@ahiac632) on

The framing of the Refinery29 article, along with its actual content, begs the question: Whom is this written for? Lindsay bafflingly posits that while ube "may sound unappetizing, Ube concoctions are anything but." Unappetizing to whom? The article reminds us that "[w]hile ube has always been around as type of yam traditionally used in Filipino cooking, it's just now getting its time in the spotlight, even though nobody can really tell you exactly what it tastes like." Nobody. Sure, Jan. The intended audience seems to be an imagined "we" who hasn't have heard of ube, in spite of the States' rather large Filipino diaspora population who may have grown up eating it. I first became privy to this article when I saw the murmurs of reactions to it on Twitter that were miffed:

The Refinery29 "take" on ube came at a peculiar time. Predating that article had been far more tactful expressions of the same point—that ube is purple, and thus conducive to ricocheting across Instagram feeds. But these pieces also struck a more informed, delicate tone that understood ube's origins and meaning. "Is Ube Filipino America's Breakout Food?" queried Paste Magazine's Kristina Bustos, a Filipina woman, in April of this year. It's a gorgeous essay that uses Bustos' own childhood memories of eating ube halaya, a dessert jam composed of condensed milk and margarine and ube, as a gateway to exploring how this vegetable has traveled and become popularized beyond Filipino populations. "What You Need to Know About Ube, the Filipino Ingredient Invading the Dessert World," wrote GQ's Matthew Mol in June. It's a headline that cheekily turns the latent power dynamic in the Refinery29 article on its head, suggesting that ube's the one doing the invading and pillaging. This coverage, too, thoughtfully navigated the fact that while ube is becoming more popular in the States, it was, first and foremost, popular among Filipinos.

It's a special kind of indignity when a food you've known all your life is stripped of its context and meaning, only for it to assume an entirely trivial one in its stead, reduced to something easy on the eyes. What's especially grating about this coverage is that ube's color is a mere entry point into its wholly unique taste, which has no obvious parallels. Coverage of this sort implores that you go get ube purely with the intent of photographing it, rather than actually eating it and experiencing it as anything more than visual pleasure.

The Refinery29 article is barely 200 words, but I'd argue that there's a particular necessity for more rigorous editorial oversight in food and lifestyle media in this particular moment as we see Filipino food permeating America's greater mainstream in a way it hasn't before. Look, for example, to the breathless buzz surrounding Filipino fast food joint Jollibee opening more locations across the States. Food inevitably travels, but it also must maintain its meaning in doing so.

Ever had ube? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: instagram, ube, filipino, filipina, philippines, the philippines