Forbes called it “the uber ingredient of 2023.” The Wicked Noodle, Mashed, and the New York Times all agree. The WGSN Food & Drink Influencer Map says engagement with this food rose from “331k in 2018 to 444k in 2021.” And though it’s a relative newcomer to mainstream America — Forbes locates its splashy entrance in 2015 with a Miami eatery’s $100 gold-covered donut — this simple ingredient has a long and rich tradition in its Asian homeland. 

The “ubiquitous” food of 2023 is ube, the iconic purple tuber of the Philippines. An incredibly versatile yam, ube is used in everything from ice cream and milkshakes to burger buns and pasta, with traditional Filipino yums like ube halaya to out-of-the-box cultural fusions like oishi ube pillows. As sweet purple pops up throughout Trader Joe’s and dizzies our social media feeds, this yam’s cultured history is well worth considering.

But what even is ube, and what does it taste like?

Not technically a sweet potato, but highly related, ube is a species of yam. Yams are a global staple, particularly in Africa, where 95% are produced, but ube is a rare species that’s native to the Philippines. And that’s where most ube stays, too; due to immense difficulties farming ube and transporting it fresh, most of us in the States make do with frozen ube or ube extract. Even in the Philippines, cassava and taro are much more common, and especially outside of Bohol — the main production region — ube halaya is much more common than fresh, whole ube.

Ube has “a very earthy, unique, a little vanilla-y, pistachio-y, coconut-y flavor,” according to Abi Balingit, the Filipino-American writer behind the food blog The Dusky Kitchen.

Abi Marquez, a Filipino food influencer based in Manilain the Philippines, explains that “if sweet potatoes and taro and red bean paste all of them had a baby, it would be ube. It’s very likable, I think.”

But ube isn't all purple.

Surprisingly, that incredible violet color of ube might not be as integral to the yam as social media would have you believe. A Substack dedicated to Filipino cuisine called Meryenda reports that “as a generation accustomed to store-bought ube, we’ve unknowingly detached ourselves from ube’s genetic diversity…. Even color variations — ranging from marbled white-purple to deep violet — are eclipsed by a defining alluring purple that paints every ube reincarnation.”

Yes, there’s white ube! That photogenic purple is at times the result of food coloring. Groundbreaking restaurateur and Filipino American Amy Besa, who currently co-owns The Purple Yam in Brooklyn, bemoaned that “Ruth Reichl was the first New York Times critic to give us a review, and then she made this comment that the problem with our ube ice cream was it was too light. It was like lavender but it should really be bright purple. We got criticized because we did not put food coloring!”

For good cooking, Balingit cautions ube fans away from the purple craze. “I think people will gravitate to color first and maybe the flavor second, and I always think it should be flavor first. Color is just a great secondary thing about it," she says. “The best application I’ve ever seen of ube is when it really respects that it is a very subtle flavor in itself. Letting that shine and not detracting from it is probably the best use cases of ube.”

“Ube is just one part of the equation for Filipino food.”

While ube is most often used in dessert products here in the States, perhaps owing to that whimsical color profile, the crop is endlessly versatile with a savory side. Filipino American YouTuber Jeanelle Castro of @Jeanelle Eats devoted the second season of her YouTube series, Battle of The Dishes, entirely to ube experiments, as a way to question the limited, dessert-focused narratives around this sweet potato — which, in its unprocessed form, is not even that sweet.

These misconceptions have caused some wariness around ube’s mainstream adoption. Rather than meeting ube as an introduction to a diverse cuisine, some newcomers may assume that ube is the end-all-be-all of Filipino food and not explore any further. As Jeanelle puts it, “It’s like, is a sweet potato a good representation of American food? You know, it’s just one item, whereas Filipino food is so diverse.”

Abi Balingit agrees. “I don’t feel like [ube is] completely representative of the amazing breadth of like, the ingredients and flavors that we have,” she says. “Ube is just one part of the equation for Filipino food.”

With ube extract becoming widely available — and the only option for many living outside of the Philippines — Abi Marquez also cautions that “it’s very easy to create super pretty purple trendy foods. But sometimes they necessarily don’t have the actual ube crop in it… Ube gets the clout, but not really the tradition and not really the people behind it.”

Despite the misconceptions surfacing with the mystical-seeming potato’s rise, there are high hopes for ube’s explosive popularity. Filipino cuisine has long lagged behind other global cuisines in the US; while ramen, pizza, sushi, and burritos have become mainstream favorites, even the most popular Filipino dishes, like lumpia and adobo, get much less hype.

Given that as of 2019, there were more than 4.2 million Filipino-Americans living in the US, making up the second-largest Asian-American group, the disparity in recognition is puzzling. The prevailing mood among Filipino-American foodies seems to be that if long-awaited recognition and popularity come from ube, so be it.

“I treat every dish or food that we can get out an opportunity for us to use it as a gateway for more people to learn about the food,” Jeanelle explains. 

For Filipino cuisine, 2023 has been marked not only by ube’s resume getting a boost, but by the James Beard award winners, and even a few Michelen star restaurants. Jeanelle fervently hopes the trend will “be an exponential thing from here. Like, it’s happening, we’re at the forefront.”

Abi Balingit is similarly hopeful: “I think it’s like we’re de-exoticizing, hopefully, this amazing purple yam that is available to use.”

In particular, she’d like to see more literacy around the “behind the scenes” of ube, the production of which can seem distant to consumers in the States. 

“I remember passing by, there’s a donut shop called Dough here in New York... and they had an ube flavor-of-the-month donut that was on their window, and they also had a printout of ube’s Wikipedia page, which is great.” That sort of credit and education is “definitely something I look for anytime I see something that has ube on the menu.”

Abi Marquez is all for the ube becoming ubiquitous. If she could pick one Filipino food to get to the same level of global and American renown as pizza or burgers, she’d even pick ube: “I’m very confident that ube is one of the 100% native crops that we have. It’s been around since the ancient times. We plant it, we eat it, we export it. It’s proudly Filipino.” (Note: ube was outvoted among the interviewees— for international fame, Balingit and Jeanelle both champion sinigang, a sour soup.)

You need to try ube. Here’s how.

Abi Balingit encourages “anyone who’s never had ube before to just go for it." Start with plain ube and then add accompanying flavors. "I recommend anything like an ube pie or ube ice cream, ideally in a pure ice cream ingredient list where it’s just like eggs, sugar, cream.”

To that end, she also recommends pandasal, a traditional morning bread eaten with butter, sugar, or ube halaya. “Ube is such a driving flavor of this yummy breakfast bread. But the bread itself is neutral enough that like ube is the first thing you taste and the bread is just like the vehicle for that.”

And, like all of us, Abi Balingit is a Trader Joe’s fan: “I will say the ube mochi pancakes are amazing.”

But don’t limit your exploration of Filipino food to this yam. “I was born and raised in the Philippines, but I have so much yet to learn from Filipino foods in other regions,” Abi Marquez adds. “If you’re interested in learning about Filipino food, there’s just so much you can explore. You’ll never run out of things to discover.”