This Filipino Sweet Yam Is More Than a Pretty Purple Food

September 30, 2016

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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I know this is terribly late in replying, but had to put this one in: I grew up eating Ube in India (Kerala), where it's called 'Kachil'. My grandmother used to steam it, and I loved eating it with a sprinkling of salt. Yup, as basic as that! Good read, Mayukh! ”
— Meris C.

Ever had ube? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Meris Cherian
    Meris Cherian
  • kimikoftokyo
  • Smaug
  • milkjam
  • bella | ful-filled
    bella | ful-filled
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Meris C. February 11, 2017
I know this is terribly late in replying, but had to put this one in: I grew up eating Ube in India (Kerala), where it's called 'Kachil'. My grandmother used to steam it, and I loved eating it with a sprinkling of salt. Yup, as basic as that!
Good read, Mayukh!
kimikoftokyo October 1, 2016
Its a fav!
Smaug October 1, 2016
So is this thing a yam or a sweet potato? The author says it's "related to" sweet potato and taro- sweet potato (Ipomoea spec.) are in the convolvulaceae (morning glory family) while taro is in the Araceae (with Calla Lillies, Jack in the Pulpit etc.). Yams are in the Diopscoraceae (of which they're the most familiar member except to succulent collectors). My guess is it's a sweet potato. I don't know if it's the same, but I did get some purple sweet potatoes one time- just baked and served with butter, they were not very good.
Smaug October 1, 2016
That's Dioscoraceae
milkjam September 30, 2016
To me, the bottom line is that Filipino food is just plain good. (except bagoong). Keep the conversation going please. Now if I could only find me some ube where I live. November 11, 2016
If you live somewhere in the East Coast, Great Wall, a Chinese grocery chain bigger in size than the Giant or Safeway in MidAtlantic. Somewhat similar to the size of the biggest Wegman's. Imagine 7 aisles of fruits and vegetables.
bella |. September 30, 2016
It is such a shame that the culture and history behind particular 'hot' or 'new' foods can be so easily ignored in our day and age. I really appreciate the perspective shared in this article and the sobering tone that encourages us to look past the superficial and build deeper connections to the people and history behind the foods we discover along our way...
Fresh T. September 30, 2016
I don't know all about the ube being used as dessert. Here (in Hawaii) it's just food. Sometimes mixed with coconut. Delicious on it's own November 11, 2016
Go to a Filipino store and you'll see Ube ice cream in their freezers sometimes with buko (young coconut) and also used as a topping for Halo Halo. During Christmas time, Ube Halaya, a dessert jam, is a much appreciated gift due to the tiresome process of cooking it.
Sally September 30, 2016
melissa September 30, 2016
thanks for this! food52 has made these kind of "columbusing" moves in the past, so i'm glad to see they are problematizing them now. it would be great to see this kind of awareness throughout the site rather than just in your (so far wonderful) columns.
Joy H. September 30, 2016
100% agree!
Mayukh S. October 1, 2016
Means a lot, Melissa—thank you for reading!