Everything to Know About Ubes, the Purple Yam Making Your Favorite Desserts Brighter (and Healthier)

Photo: Getty Images/Eleonora Tuveri
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What's purple, sweet, and brightening up healthy food offerings on trendy menus and Instagrams? No, not purple ketchup (RIP), it's the humble ube.

The ube (pronounced ooh-bae) is a purple yam and a close relative of the sweet potato. It's long been a staple of Filipino cooking as a dessert ingredient, and is related to (but not the same as) the Japanese sweet potato popular in Okinawa. Now the yam is gaining widespread love in the US, appearing in the form of ice cream, lattes, and dreamy-looking desserts. Trader Joe's is even selling its own ube ice cream, so you know this is a big deal.


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If you've never eaten ubes before—and TBH aren't quite clear on how exactly they differ from orange sweet potatoes—consider this your complete primer.

What are ubes?

From the outside, ubes look really similar to orange sweet potatoes: a spud with brown skin. But there are some differences. First of all, sweet potatoes and yams (and ubes are in the latter camp) aren't the same thing. Yams are typically a little bit higher in fiber and potassium, and registered dietitian Malena Perdomo, RD, says that purple yams in particular are higher in antioxidants.

"The pretty color purple that is due to an antioxidant, anthocyanin," she explains, adding that the content is actually better when steamed, boiled, or mashed. This specific antioxidant is especially good for fighting inflammation.

Here's the full lowdown on the nutritional benefits of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams:

Unlike sweet potatoes and yams—which you can find at most grocery stores—purple yams are a bit harder to find. According to Foxy Folksy food blogger Bebs Manaloto-Lott, you can try your luck at Asian specialty markets if you're coming up short at the farmer's market. (I also found them at my local Whole Foods, FWIW.)

"When you're buying ubes, try to pinch or scratch a bit of the skin off. The skin should be a very deep shade of purple," Manaloto-Lott says. "Get the ones that are hard or firm with no wrinkles and soft spots, which means they are fresher and newly dug. Also, try to get one that has not many finer roots." She also adds that medium to big pieces with a more regular shape are easier to peel.

How do you cook with ubes?

Ubes and sweet potatoes taste pretty similar, but Manaloto-Lott says ubes have a milkier, chestnut-y taste. Traditionally, she says, ubes are used in desserts. "The most popular use for ube is Ube Halaya or Purple Yam Jam," she says. "It is made by slowly cooking the ube with coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and butter, while stirring it regularly until it reaches a very thick, sticky, creamy texture."

Because the veggie is so vibrant, Manaloto-Lott suggests wearing gloves and covering cutting boards and utensils with aluminum foil to avoid staining. Whatever you want to use your ubes to make, Manaloto-Lott offers up this pro tip: "If you are going to boil them, wash them thoroughly, and use a brush to scrub the skin and remove the dirt," she says. After you boil them—just like you would regular potatoes—she says not to throw out the water. "You can add some of it back when making Ube Halaya as a natural food coloring to make the color of your ube yam more vibrant," she says. (Hey, you're at least partially doing it for the 'gram, right?)

You can also eat your ubes as is—no dessert recipe needed. "Another way to cook them is to steam them until fork-tender," Manaloto-Lott says. "This way it will not absorb any additional liquids and the flavors and colors are richer and more intact."

What's really great about ubes is that, like sweet potatoes, it's pretty difficult to mess them up. You can keep it simple by sticking them in the oven for 45 minutes, or you can fire up your blender and get a little creative. Either way, you'll end up with something that's beautiful, delicious, and really damn good for you. Who knew the holy trifecta of healthy eating could be so easy?

If you're looking for more healthy dessert ideas, check out these five recipes. And connect with other Well+Good readers in our private Cook With Us Facebook group.

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