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 potato (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, these purple tubers earned the name Okinawan sweet potatoes or beni imo. They eventually made their way to Hawaii, where they became known as Hawaiian sweet potatoes or ʻuala. These sweet potatoes have a creamy, beige skin and bluish-purple flesh. It tastes mildly sweet with a dry, starchy texture.
What is ube (purple yam)?
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 whille 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.
Are purple sweet potato and yam (ube) healthy?
Purple sweet potatoes and yams (ube) are highly nutritious, packed with vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and complex carbs for sustained energy. They are rich in phytonutrients like flavonoids and beta-carotene, protecting against chronic diseases.
Their vibrant comes from anthocyanin pigments, also found in berries, cherries, pomegranates, purple carrots, and other fruits and vegetables. These pigments serve as antioxidants, reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system.
Purple yams prevent blood sugar spikes with a low glycemic index, while purple sweet potatoes fall in the medium range. Portion control can benefit individuals who need to manage their blood sugar levels.
While generally safe to consume, it's important to consider precautions for allergies or sensitivities and moderate intake due to high oxalate content. For personalized guidance or health concerns, consulting a healthcare professional is advisable.
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.
Ube (purple yam) in Filipino cooking
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 (Jam): A spread made with mashed or grated ube, coconut or evaporated milk, and condensed milk. It has a thick and smooth texture that is enjoyed on its own or incorporated into various recipes.
- Halo-Halo: Shaved ice dessert with ube jam (ube halaya), sweetened beans, sweetened fruits (jackfruit, macapuno, mangoes, or bananas), gulaman (agar-agar), and sago pearls. It is topped with pinipig (pounded young rice), ice cream, leche flan, and doused with evaporated milk.
- Ube Macapuno Cake: A layered dessert made with ube-flavored chiffon layers, filled with sweetened coconut sport (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 (purple yam) and coconut milk or carabao's (water buffalo) milk.
- 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 Filipino pandesal bread 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 (Banana Spring Rolls), deep-fried bananas rolled in thin pastry skins 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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