Ube-r Healthy: Everything You Need to Know About Purple Yam

Often when we think of using starchy ingredients like the potato or taro, savoury dishes come to mind.

But not for ube – the purple yam of the Philippines. Pronounced as “oo-beh”, this Southeast Asian tuber is considered a dessert staple in the Philippines and is cultivated and enjoyed worldwide.

Used primarily for sweets and desserts, its distinct purple or lavender colour makes it a fun ingredient to use in ice creams, cakes or puddings.

Speak to any Filipino and they would not find their sweet dishes complete without a touch of this sweet yam, considered to be more popular than vanilla. You find plenty of purple yam in the Filipino favourite dessert called the halo-halo. It’s a sweet treat of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and colourful toppings that include tapioca and plantains. All topped off with the purple delight.

Where is ube from?

Purple yam can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia – but be mindful that you’ve got to eat it cooked, it may contain some toxicity if eaten raw. Ube’s Latin name is dioscorea alata and is often mistaken for taro. Both have greyish-brown skins, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Taro is used in many savoury dishes, while ube is chosen for its sweetness. The purple flesh of the ube is one of the main differences and remains so when cooked. Taro is typically white and sometimes turns slightly violet when cooked but that depends on the variety.

For home gardeners, it’s important to keep in mind that the ube, also known as the violet yam, is fast-growing.  The plant has plenty of vines to creep around your trellis, structures or across your vegetable beds. As a perennial, it is a hardy plant, though plenty of water is needed with some light shade. Because it grows quickly, be sure to harvest the tubers and move them around the garden to prevent them from dominating over your other vegetables.

The plant doesn’t like drought, so have your watering schedule set to twice a week if facing a dry spell. You can prune back the tips of the vines to manage excess growth, or to encourage side growth. Manage the dry leaves by plucking off yellow or brown dried heart-shaped leaves. Compost them by burning them instead of just chucking into the bin as they will take root easily. 

To ube or not to ube

Bright purple – not just a colour to lighten up your day, but having purple yam is apparently good for you too. Rich in powerful plant compounds and antioxidants, including anthocyanins, which is the reason for their vibrant hue. Studies have shown that anthocyanins have the potential to cut down blood pressure and inflammation, protect against cancer.

Added to that, ube are powerful sources of Vitamin C that are beneficial as an antioxidant. The vitamin C, in turn, helps with iron absorption and protects damage to our DNAs – basically an overall booster for our health.

Eating starchy tubers like ube also helps with our digestion. As a source of complex carbohydrates, it possesses a probiotic quality to help raise the number of bifidobacteria – a beneficial gut bacteria. As a result, these bacteria help in breaking down other complex carbohydrates and fibre, aid bowel movement and prevents constipation. Aside from supporting the digestive function, having this gut bacteria helps in the production of healthy fatty acids. 

Cooking and eating

The ube is essentially a tuber-like the everyday potato but has a less savoury flavour. This food author describes the taste of the paleo-friendly purple yam as an amalgamation of vanilla with the nuttiness of pistachio. But don’t expect an intense flavour.

Some authors also likened the taste of ube to an orange – only with the added brightness. There are various ways you can prepare the tubers before turning them into fun ingredients for your home kitchen.

One way is to roast them. First wrap the yams in an aluminium foil and poke holes in the tubers. Roast them in the oven for 90 minutes to two hours, or until they feel soft when poked with a fork. Another way is to simmer the yam (with skins on), in a pot of boiling water for four minutes. Again test their readiness with a fork. Or if you have time, you can cut them into tiny pieces before roasting them till they are cooked, freeze them for storage if needed.

An easy recipe to follow is to make purple yam chips out of it, but they may be sweeter than your typical orange coloured sweet potato fries.  Or try another Filipino treat – purple yam jam or halayang ube. Eaten with bread or by itself, make this topping by adding butter, evaporated milk, a little vanilla extract and sweetened condensed milk for a decadent experience. 

Ube is vegan friendly too, so it’s a perfect ingredient if you’re looking for a filling dish in sweet pies.  Make it with gluten-free crusts too if there are allergies. Dessert bars are just as easy by using cashew butter, coconut oil, coconut milk as a blend for a vegan buttercream. Make a healthy crust out of pecans, dates, cinnamon and you can build your dessert bar layers with your cube-cut purple yam.

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