Ube, or purple yam, holds a special place in Filipino culture and cuisine. Its rich, sweet flavor, and deep violet-purple hue set it apart from other root vegetables.
It is often mislabeled and mistaken for Purple Sweet Potatoes (not to mention taro) due to their resemblance. While you can use them interchangeably, it's important to note that there are subtle differences between them.
What are purple sweet potatoes?
Purple sweet potatoes, also known as Ipomoea batata, are root vegetables similar to other sweet potatoes. They are tapered tubers with pointed ends and come in two main varieties: Okinawa (white skin) and Stokes (purple skin), known for their deep purple flesh.
Stokes Purple sweet potatoes were first grown in Stokes County, North Carolina. They have purple-tinted skin and deep purple flesh that intensifies when cooked. These sweet potatoes have a moist and starchy texture with a mild sweetness and subtle floral notes.
Initially grown in Okinawa, Okinawan sweet potatoes (or beni imo) eventually made their way to Hawaii, where they became known as Hawaiian sweet potatoes (or ʻuala). These sweet potatoes have creamy, beige skin and bluish-purple flesh. They taste mildly sweet with a dry, starchy texture.
What is ube?
Ube or purple yam is scientifically known as Dioscorea alata. It is a root vegetable native to Southeast Asia, particulary popular in Filipino cuisine. It comes in various sizes and shapes, typically with rounded ends and a twisted or gnarled appearance. Its skin is dark, rough, and bark-like with small rootlets.
The flesh of ube ranges from bright lavender to deep purple with some white marbling. It has a slimy texture resembling taro.
When cooked, it gets soft and creamy with a sweet, nutty flavor. Its flavor is mild with a distinct aroma, often compared to a combination of vanilla and coconut.
Some varieties have a strong pleasant aroma while others tend to be mealy in consistency.
Purple sweet potatoes vs. ube (purple yam)
Ube and purple sweet potatoes are incredibly similar, making them interchangeable in most recipes. However, it is important to be aware of the subtle differences between them.
- Taste: Purple sweet potatoes and ube (purple yam) have a similar sweet and earthy flavor. They taste so similar that the difference can be difficult to distinguish for some. Some varities of ube stands out for their nutty taste and pronounced aroma.
- Texture: Purple sweet potatoes are moist and starchy with a drier texture; some varieties can be fribrous. Ube is creamy with a slightly sticky texture; some varieties can have a grainier consistency.
- Color: The color can vary depending on the specific varieties and growing conditions. The flesh can range from shades of lilac and lavender to vibrant purple. Some varieties may exhibit white specks or marbling. The color tend to intensify when cooked.
- Skin: Ube has a dark, rough-looking skin, resembling tree bark. Purple sweet potatoes have a thin and smoother skin that can be cream or purple depending on the variety. The distinct skin texture and color help differentiate them.
- Preparation: Purple sweet potatoes can be prepared in similar ways to regular sweet potatoes, such as baking, boiling, or roasting. Ube is more commonly used in bread, pastries, and desserts. Since ube may be harder to find in some areas, purple sweet potatoes serve as an excellent substitute.
- Availability: Purple sweet potatoes are available year-round in the US. You can also find them in powdered form. However, ube (purple yam) is harder to find in fresh form as they are primarily grown in the Philippines. You can instead buy frozen grated ube, ube powder, or extracts in most Asian supermarkets.
While I don't recommend substituting with ube powder since it doesn't capture the authentic taste and texture of real ube, you can use it in a pinch.
To rehydrate the powder, simply add some hot water until it reaches a paste-like consistency.
Is ube the same as taro?
Ube and taro are starchy root vegetables that share some similarities. However, they are different plants with distinct flavors and appearances. Ube has a vibrant purple color with a sweet, slightly nutty flavor often used in desserts.
On the other hand, taro has white or pale lavender flesh and may sometimes have streaks of purple, giving it a marbled appearance. It has a mild taste and a starchy, somewhat slimy texture.
While taro is commonly used in desserts or drinks like the popular taro milk tea, it is also a versatile ingredient in savory dishes, much like a potato.
Are purple sweet potato and yam (ube) healthy?
According to Healthline, purple yams (ube) are good for you. They are packed with carbs, potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. Rich in antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, they offer protection against cell damage.
These yams are a good source of resistant starch, contributing to optimal gut health. Their flavonoid content helps stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent spikes with their low glycemic index.
WebMD states that sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, and beta-carotene. They contain natural sugars, but their high fiber content helps stabilize blood sugar absorption.
Purple sweet potatoes are loaded with anthocyanin pigments, powerful antioxidants that combat inflammation. These pigments are present at levels three times higher than blueberries, boosting the immune system.
While generally safe to consume, be mindful of potential allergies or sensitivities and limit intake due to high oxalate content. For health concerns, consulting a healthcare professional is always best.
How to buy
As a general rule of thumb for buying sweet potatoes and yams, look for ones that are free from blemishes or soft spots. They should be firm and feel heavy for their size, indicating freshness and a higher moisture content. Avoid any signs of decay or mold, as well as bruising or excessive wrinkling.
How to store
Store them in a cool, dark place with good air circulation to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to spoilage. Keep them separate from other fruits and vegetables as they release ethylene gas, accelerating the ripening and spoilage of nearby produce.
Avoid refrigeration, as it affects texture and flavor. Regularly inspect for decay, mold, or soft spots. Remove any damaged or spoiled ones promptly. It is best to use them within a reasonable time to enjoy their optimal flavor and texture.
Cooked purple sweet potatoes and ube should be wrapped or stored in airtight containers and refrigerated for 3-5 days. Alternatively, you can freeze them to extend their shelf life.
How to prepare
To get purple sweet potatoes and ube ready for cooking, you can follow these basic steps:
- Wash: Thoroughly wash them under cool running water to remove any dirt or debris.
- Peel: Depending on the recipe and personal preference, peeling purple sweet potatoes is optional since the skin is edible. However, for ube with its bark-like skin, you can use a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife to remove the skin.
- Cut: Sweet potatoes can be cut or cooked whole, depending on your recipe. As for ube, it is typically boiled or steamed. You can cook it whole or peel and cut it into smaller pieces if the size is too large.
- Cook: Purple sweet potatoes can be prepared like regular sweet potatoes, such as steaming, baking, roasting, or frying. Traditionally, ube is cooked through boiling or steaming. It is grated, mashed, or pureed and incorporated into various pastries and desserts.
Filipino recipes with ube
Ube, known for its vibrant purple color, adds an appealing visual element to many Filipino delicacies. Here are some Filipino recipes that prominently feature ube as a key ingredient:
- Ube Halaya: A spread made with mashed or grated ube, coconut or evaporated milk, and condensed milk. It has a thick, smooth texture and can be garnished with latik or toasted coconut.
- Halo-Halo: Shaved ice dessert with ube halaya, sweetened beans, sweetened fruits (jackfruit, macapuno, mangoes, or saba bananas), gulaman, sweet corn, and sago. It is topped with pinipig, ice cream, leche flan, and doused with evaporated milk.
- Ube Macapuno Cake: A layered dessert made with ube-flavored chiffon layers, filled with macapuno, and covered with ube-flavored frosting.
- Ube Ice Cream: Locally known as ube sorbetes, it is a Filipino type of ice cream that is typically made with ube and coconut milk or carabao's (water buffalo) milk.
- Ube Kalamay: A purple rice cake cooked to a thick, chewy consistency and topped with latik.
- Ube Crinkle Cookies: Purple-colored cookies that are soft and chewy with a cracked exterior rolled in powdered sugar.
- Ube Cheese Pandesal: A twist on the classic pandesal with ube incorporated into the dough and stuffed with cheese, creating a combination of sweet and savory flavors.
- Ube Ensaymada: A twist on the classic ensaymada, a soft and fluffy bread topped with butter, sugar, and grated cheese, with pockets of ube halaya swirled within.
- Ube Turon: A twist on the classic Turon, deep-fried saba bananas rolled in thin lumpia wrappers filled with ube halaya.
- Ube Polvoron: A Filipino twist on the Spanish shortbread cookie, polvoron. This dry and crumbly treat is made with flour, powdered milk, sugar, butter, and ube. Rather than baking, it is cooked in a pan, formed into bite-sized pieces, and wrapped in colorful cellophane or wax paper.
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