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A photo of ube toast on a cutting board, behind it there is a background of zoomed in whole ube Photo illustration by Lille Allen / Eater. Sources: Getty; Shutterstock.

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Ube Flavoring Is Ubiquitous. But Where Does the Fresh Stuff Fit In?

While most ube sweets in the U.S. are made with artificial or highly processed ingredients, some Filipino chefs are taking ube back to its roots

As Ria Barbosa was getting ready to open a restaurant in Hawai‘i, she was excited to cook with a whole new world of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables — but she didn’t realize just how familiar some would be.

When she moved from Los Angeles to Honolulu ahead of opening Peso in July, Barbosa explored the produce stalls in Chinatown. She and her business partner Robert Villanueva stopped to buy some fresh jackfruit from one vendor. “I started looking around, and I see these large, dark brown, almost black tubers,” Barbosa recalls. “So I pick it up, and I use my thumbnail to scratch a little bit, and I noticed that it was purple.” She asked the vendor what it was, and the woman responded by asking if Barbosa was Filipino. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she’s like, ‘That’s ube’” — real, fresh ube, something Barbosa had never seen. “I was like, ‘Oh, we have to get this,’” she recalls.

Barbosa can be forgiven for not realizing what she was looking at. Ube flavor may be hugely popular, both in traditional Filipino sweets and in the countless novelty items sold at Trader Joe’s, but in nearly all parts of the United States, the products are made with frozen ube, powdered ube, or ube extract (which sometimes contains no ube at all). The actual tuber that Barbosa encountered in Honolulu is essentially unavailable in the continental U.S. The plants are sprawling perennial vines that flourish in tropical weather, and because they’re considered an invasive species in Florida, ube isn’t commercially grown in the Lower 48. Fresh imports from the Philippines are also nonexistent.

Growing up in Los Angeles, where Barbosa’s family moved from the Philippines when she was 6, ice cream was her favorite ube treat. She lived in Atwater Village, not far from Eagle Rock, long the heart of Filipino Los Angeles, where there were Filipino restaurants and Asian grocery stores that sold various sweets with processed ube in the decades before it became widely popular. After beginning her career in Las Vegas, Barbosa came up cooking at LA restaurants like Canelé and Sqirl (where she was the opening chef). Both are the kinds of places that worship the farmers market and make everything from scratch; using processed ube just isn’t her style, so she never served it.

That hasn’t stopped people from expecting it. Ever since 2020, when Barbosa opened LA’s Petite Peso — her first restaurant as a chef-owner and also her first that was specifically focused on Filipino food — diners have asked about ube. “It’s like, ‘Why don’t you do it with a polvoron? Why don’t you do ube whatever?’” she says. “‘Ube this, ube that. Do you have any ube desserts?’”

The answer was always no. “If I was going to throw my hat in the ube ring, it’d have to be from the real stuff, that way I can really understand its properties, how it cooks,” Barbosa says. “I didn’t just want to serve another purple confection for the sake of being a Filipino cook expected to make adobo, lumpia, and ube.” Only now, with access to the fresh crop, has she put ube on the menu at Peso.

Ube has been cultivated in the South Pacific for at least 10,000 years. In the Philippines, it’s actually a native crop, standing out among the many ingredients brought into the country with successive waves of colonization. Ube likely first arrived in Hawai‘i with the sakadas, Filipino migrant workers who came to the islands starting in the early 1900s to work on the growing cane and pineapple plantations; Barbosa’s own great-grandparents were sakadas, and her paternal grandmother was born on O‘ahu in 1921.

Today, Filipinos are the largest single ethnic group in Hawai‘i, with the bulk of the community living on O‘ahu, where you can find not only fresh ube tubers for sale, as Barbosa did, but dishes made from fresh ube, too. At Tali’s Bagels & Schmear in Honolulu’s Ward Village, you can get violet-hued ube cream cheese on the shop’s hand-rolled bagels. And at Beyond Pastry Studio there are ensaymadas filled with halaya, the classic ube jam, and cream cheese. Beyond’s pastry chef, Cristina Nishioka, who is originally from the Philippines, also occasionally makes a two-layer cheesecake — ube on the bottom, mascarpone on the top — sandwiching a banana-mango-pineapple compote.

Nishioka says processed forms of ube are common in the Philippines too, but she always makes a point of working with the fresh stuff. For her, it’s a way to connect with her culture and heritage. “There’s more appreciation when you actually peel, steam, grate, and cook fresh ube,” she says. “For me, it’s showcasing and celebrating the essence of Filipino cuisine.”

Tali’s Bagels & Schmear won’t use processed ube when fresh isn’t available, substituting locally grown Okinawan sweet potatoes instead. “They’re not as vibrant,” says Talia Bongolan-Schwartz, who runs the bagel shop with her business partner and wife Kelly, “but the flavor of the schmear ends up very similar and we always prioritize local produce.”

Both the schmear and the ensaymadas are very popular items for Tali’s Bagels & Schmear and Beyond Pastry Studio, but fresh ube doesn’t seem worth the extra work to some Hawai‘i bakers and chefs when most diners have had only artificial or processed ube, which tastes more like the sweetened essence of the color purple than anything that came from a plant. One Honolulu pastry chef who has used it in the past told Eater they aren’t likely to cook with it again, because fresh ube “has no flavor of its own,” and because customers expect ube to taste like the commercial and artificial versions. (The chef prefers to remain anonymous because they don’t want to be known as the Filipinx chef turning their back on real ube — even though many Filipinx chefs do use ube extracts and powders.)

With that first ube tuber, Barbosa didn’t know what to expect, but she knew exactly what she wanted to make with it: halaya, a thick, sweetened ube jam that’s the basis of many Filipino desserts. After peeling, chopping, and boiling the ube, she mixed the mashed purple chunks with sugar, milk (fresh, not evaporated or sweetened condensed milk, as is more commonly used), and butter, and began to cook it all down. “You have to stir it and babysit it,” she says, describing the slow process of cooking the jam down. “You stand there and stir it and hope the hot lava bubbles don’t get you.”

She had tried a bit of the plain cooked ube before adding anything else, and found that it didn’t taste like anything special. But when she cooked it for the second time, with the sugar and milk, “that’s when all the nuances come out,” she says. Instead of plain sweet potato flavors (boiled ube) or the color purple (ube concentrate), the jam developed delicate notes of white chocolate, pistachios, and vanilla — the real, true flavor of ube that she had been waiting for.

At the restaurant, Barbosa’s halaya now flavors two dishes: an ube budino that’s served for dessert, and the ube-stuffed French toast on the brunch menu. Now that she finally has an ube dessert, Barbosa wants to experiment more with the tuber, exploring the range of colors found in the different varieties grown on O‘ahu, and learning how it works in savory applications, like an ube gnocchi with kabocha-coconut cream sauce she plans on trying out soon.

But in doing so, she’s bound to run into more frustrations from diners about their very specific notions about what ube can and should be. It’s something she’s already seen at Peso: One local farmer sells a stark-white variety of ube, which Barbosa used for her halaya for a time when the restaurant first opened. “But people got mad,” she says, “because it wasn’t purple.”

Willy Blackmore is a freelance writer and editor who covers food, culture, and the environment. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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