The Rise of Ube

Ube, the purple yam treasured for centuries by people in the Philippines, has gained a newfound popularity among brands and social media influencers alike.

Here is Ube Pandesal. Pandesal is a Filipino bread roll that is slightly sweet. Here it is combined with ube.

Ptrcparian, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Here is Ube Pandesal. Pandesal is a Filipino bread roll that is slightly sweet. Here it is combined with ube.

If someone asked you to name a vegetable, a few would come to mind, such as carrots, broccoli, potatoes, and onions. The list goes on. One that you probably wouldn’t think of, however, is ube. Ube is a yam native to the Philippines that has a sweet, nutty taste and a unique purple coloring. It has been a staple ingredient in Filipino cuisine for centuries, most often in desserts such as ube halaya (a kind of sweet jam made with ube), and halo-halo (the national dessert of the Philippines, made of ube, crushed ice, and other toppings). 

For Filipino people, ube has always played an important role in their culinary and cultural identities. It is ubiquitous as part of many breakfasts, meriendas (daily afternoon snacks), dinners, desserts, and nearly every celebration table. In the boiling summers of the Philippines, ube ice cream and halo-halo can be found on plenty of street corners, and always make a delicious and refreshing treat. 

The yam even plays an important role in beloved Christmas traditions. 

“Christmas Eve was never complete without puto bumbong (steamed sweet rice and ube cakes), popping from hot bamboo tubes on the street vendor’s cart outside of church, filling the air with a warm, sweet aroma that I miss to this day,” Melissa Ince (my mother) said, recounting her time growing up in the Philippines. 

Watching my family bake and eat treats with ube was always a special experience for me growing up. At family gatherings, ube was the dessert everyone looked forward to. My personal favorite was ube puto (a steamed rice cake). Whenever I bit into a warm piece of ube puto, I knew that I was home. When I visited the Philippines, I indulged in large amounts of heavenly ube ice cream. However, when I mentioned ube to my friends at school, no one had heard of it. This is why, years later, I was so surprised to see ube going viral on social media, especially on Instagram and TikTok.

Ube’s New Popularity

Food influencers looking for eye-catching foods to drive up views have naturally gravitated to ube. Its bright purple color gives it a unique look that attracts viewers. On Instagram, users have shared nearly 600,000 posts of ube treats. On TikTok, the ube hashtag has amassed over 200 million views and counting. 

Food brands are beginning to take notice of ube’s rise in popularity. Most notably, Trader Joe’s released multiple ube products, starting with their ube ice cream in 2019. Since then, they have released ube mochi pancakes, ube tea cookies, ube mochi ice cream, ube pretzels, and ube spread. They are delicious sounding and tasting, but there has been some controversy surrounding the products. 

The earlier products that Trader Joe’s released offered a description of ube on the packaging which specifically credited the Philippines. For example, the packaging of their ube pancake mix read, “Ube – The name purple yams are known by in the Philippines,” and the packaging of their ube tea cookies read, “Ube, the popular purple tuber [type of plant that grows underground] from the Philippines.” However, the store’s new ube pretzels and ube spread, created in 2022, no longer had any mention of the Philippines. Filipino influencers who noticed this seemingly small detail spoke about their disappointment towards the change in packaging. It felt, for some, that Trade Joe’s was no longer acknowledging that ube is Filipino. 

The labeling wasn’t the only problem notable about Trader Joes’ ube spread. The taste itself proved to be an issue. Filipino influencers all gave the same review — it tasted nothing like ube. Many describe it as tasting more similar to caramel sauce, sweet and tasty, but not resembling ube. 

I  tried their ube cookies myself and found the same problem. I was excited to try them when my friend brought them to lunch earlier this year, but I became confused when I bit into the cookie. It tasted like cinnamon. It was good, but again, it tasted nothing like ube. 

Riley Thompson ’24, a Filipino student at Bronx Science, grew up familiar with the taste of authentic ube, and actually never liked it. She tried the cookies and found them strange as well.

“I think it’s super whitewashed. I distinctly remember the flavor of ube and I don’t like it. With Trader Joe’s ube, it tasted like you added purple food coloring to sugar cookies with cinnamon and nutmeg. There wasn’t a lick of ube, and I know that because I liked them,” Thompson said.

Many Filipino people who have tried these products share the opinion with Riley that Trader Joe’s ube line is very whitewashed. This has been a concern that Filipino people have had with ube gaining popularity as a whole. As it becomes more mainstream, much of its authenticity is lost. Ube has gained so much fame on social media that many Filipinos worry that this culturally significant ingredient is turning into a trivial food trend. There is also the concern that non-Filipino food influencers, and brands commercializing ube, are profiting off of ube without credit to the Philippines.

In addition to a loss of authenticity, ube’s popularity has brought it some negative attention. Now that it can more commonly be found in stores and on social media, some people look at it and spread their comments online about how they think it looks “gross,” without knowing what it is, or knowing how hurtful this can be to Filipino people who regard ube as an integral part of their culture. 

“On the one hand, I’m proud of Filipino culture and happy to share it with my Western counterparts. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m on board with its portrayal as novel and trendy,” Melissa Ince said.

While sharing food and culture is important, it should be done with proper acknowledgment and authenticity of the place it came from. 

Where to get Authentic Ube in New York City

Although there is a lot of inauthentic ube circling the internet and stores, there are still plenty of places to go to find real ube. For an authentic Filipino ube experience, Little Manila in Woodside Queens is the place to go.  There you will find numerous Filipino-owned restaurants and stores. Red Ribbon Bakeshop is a popular chain bakery in the Philippines, with several stores in New York City including one in Little Manila. They sell a variety of delicious traditional ube treats such as Ube Ensaymada (a sweet roll similar to brioche), Ube Flan Cake, Ube Mamon (sponge cakes), Ube Coconut Rolls, and Ube Layer Cake. All of their ube desserts are made with real Filipino ube. Phil-Am Food Market has been a popular Filipino grocery store in business since 1976. They sell jars of Ube Jam, along with frozen purees, ice cream, candy, baked goods, and even the raw ube yams themselves. Iwahan and Renee’s Kitchenette & Grill are two Filipino restaurants in the area where you can try halo-halo. 

Kora, a Filipino-owned bakery located in Long Island City, became massively popular for their Ube Donuts. Although Kora is a trendy place to visit, you will still get an authentic taste of ube in their donuts and other pastries. Chef Kimberly Camara, the owner of Kora, creates all of her treats in memory of her culture, and her late grandmother.

“On the one hand, I’m proud of Filipino culture and happy to share it with my Western counterparts. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m on board with its portrayal as novel and trendy,” Melissa Ince said.