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Winter 2020

This Yam is the New Jam

Who knew a root crop could be a key dessert ingredient? Filipinos did. The Philippines is famous for its diverse and unique flavor combinations, especially when it comes to sweets. And one of the most-used flavors for desserts comes from a purple yam called ube (pronounced “ooh-bay”).Ube is a food native to Southeast Asia. It has a mild taste, somewhat like vanilla, and is definitely sweeter than other root crops. On the outside, however, it’s often confused with taro root. But there’s a pretty important distinction between the two: ube is bright purple all the time. Though some taro has a slightly purple coloring to it, ube is a much deeper, more luscious purple both as a root and as an ingredient.

Here are five delicious ube desserts from the Philippines.

Puto is a steamed cake. It’s a little gooey to the touch and falls apart in your mouth, with a mild flavor to it. Like lots of Filipino desserts, it usually comes with a bit of processed cheese on top.


Piaya is a fried flatbread filled with muscovado sugar (a dark brown sugar with a lot of molasses in it). To make your piaya ube-flavored, you can simply add ube flavoring, but you’re welcome to use fresh ube or ube halaya, which is basically an ube jam.

Even though most Filipinos don’t have ovens in their homes, they love baked goods. Mamon is a traditional Filipino sponge cake that is sometimes ube-flavored. The cakes are sold in individual packages or fresh from local bakeries. Filipino bakery chains such as Red Ribbon and Goldilocks also make ube cake rolls (similar to Swiss rolls) and good old regular cakes out of the yam. It’s a vibrantly colorful addition to your party food.

Ice Cream
Though the Philippines doesn’t have easy access to fresh dairy products, you are sure to find plenty of unique ice cream flavors there, many of which use ube as a base flavor. You can get plain ube, ube with beans, and even ube with cheese. You can eat this ice cream in lots of different ways. You can eat it straight from the tub, in a white bread roll (giving a whole new meaning to “ice cream sandwich”), or in halo-halo.

Halo-halo, a shaved ice treat and the king of all Filipino desserts, actually has two ube elements: it’s topped with a scoop of ube ice cream, and a spoonful of ube halaya is mixed in with the shaved ice and other ingredients. Halo-halo literally translates to “mix-mix,” and that’s exactly what you get: a mix of beans, tapioca balls, gelatin, bananas, jackfruit, and leche flan, among other things. It’s the perfect blend of cold, creamy, crunchy, and soft, with a powerhouse of flavors.

There are so many ways to eat ube, and they’re all sure to give you something sweet. Whether you visit the Philippines or not, you can still find ube desserts in the US, especially if you live in California or have a well-stocked local Asian market nearby. But no matter where you find it, nothing beats a Filipino halo-halo with that violet scoop on top.

Laura Combrink