There’s been quite a bit of buzz about ube lately—a purple showstopper of a root vegetable that’s popping up left and right on social media and restaurant menus alike—and we must admit we’re intrigued. So, what is ube...and is it as good to eat as it is to look at? Read on for everything you need to know about this trendy ingredient.
What is ube?
That striking purple ice cream cone on your Instagram feed? Yeah, that’s ube. But what is it exactly? It turns out that ube, also known as purple yam, is a type of tuber that’s native to the Philippines, where it is frequently featured in dessert dishes. (Fun fact: Ube is actually the word for tuber in Tagalog.) This jewel-toned root vegetable is not a sweet potato, but the two are pretty closely related and have a fair amount in common—namely, that ube is similarly starchy and sweet. (But more on that below.)
What does ube taste like?
We touched on this already, but the flesh of ube is sweet and, as such, well-suited for dessert dishes. Still, ube isn’t quite as sweet as the good ol’ orange sweet potato that you’re probably more familiar with. Instead, ube has a more subtle sweetness, with a nutty character and notes of vanilla. Although in the Philippines, this veg is most often used in treats, its mellow taste can work well when served roasted or mashed (and preferably with plenty of butter) as a savory side dish, or even enjoyed at breakfast as seen in the ube waffle recipe from our friends at Pineapple and Coconut pictured above. In other words, ube is one versatile root vegetable—and no matter how you use it, you can trust that its mellow, complex and divinely creamy taste will please the palate.
Is ube healthy?
Although ube is often found in sweet treats, where it’s mixed with not-so-healthy ingredients like sugar and sweetened condensed milk, these purple yams actually have quite an impressive nutritional profile on their own. According to Dr. Amy Lee, Head of Nutrition for Nucific, ube is an excellent source of both dietary fiber (4 grams per serving) and health-boosting antioxidants. Despite its creamy, potato-like texture, Dr. Lee tells us that “ube is actually considered a low glycemic load food so it is not as starchy as one may think...and the starch is a resistant starch so it feeds our probiotics in the gut.” All this sounds like pretty good news, right? It gets better. It turns out that gorgeous purple color isn’t just nice to look at it. Per Dr. Lee, the pigment comes from anthocyanins, which have pro-health and anti-inflammatory benefits. Bottom line: Ube is indeed quite good for you, but of course the benefits can be offset by the other ingredients you’re chowing down on (i.e., go easy on the ube cupcakes, OK?).
Why is ube so trendy right now?
Ube has been widely enjoyed by Filipinos for ages, so why is it suddenly making such a splash stateside? To answer this question, you need only to look at the current culinary trends in the country—particularly, the growing popularity of plant-based diets. The number of people choosing vegan and vegetarian lifestyles has been on the rise over the last decade, as have diets that aren’t entirely plant-based but nevertheless put an emphasis on clean eating. For this reason, general interest in a more diverse selection of produce has increased—you know, because Brussels sprouts and broccoli on repeat can get old pretty fast—and both chefs and influencers are on social media sharing dishes that reflect the culinary trends of the moment. Speaking of social media, it doesn’t hurt that ube is a photogenic beauty, considering that it has become commonplace to snap and post an Insta-worthy picture of your food before you pick up your fork. (Case in point: this ube tres leches cake courtesy of Coterie member Nastassia Johnson is almost too pretty to eat.)
What’s the difference between ube and taro?
When you think of starchy, purple roots, taro probably comes to mind. And at first glance, taro and ube are indeed easy to confuse. However, there are some pretty significant differences between the two. For starters, taro has a much more neutral taste—taro has a creamy, mildly nutty flavor, but is considerably less sweet than ube. (Hint: There’s a sweetness spectrum here—taro is at one end, sweet potato at the other, and ube is right in the middle.) Although taro is delicious, the fact that it isn’t blowing up your social media quite as much as ube points to another difference between the two. Indeed, the saturated purple color of ube sets it apart from taro. Although there are varieties of taro that have purple-flecked skin and a faint purple tinge to the flesh, you won’t find the kind of bold hue that’s characteristic of the ube’s interior; in fact, the meaty part of taro is usually milky white or beige. The takeaway? Taro and ube are somewhat similar—but if you’re looking for a little extra sweetness and a pop of color on your plate, ube is the way to go.