If you’re a dessert aficionado like myself, you might’ve noticed a vibrant purple hue appearing in the mix more often lately. No, it’s not lavender, grape, or eggplant. It’s ube, a purple yam that has been a fixture of Southeast Asian cuisine for centuries. Over the past few years, it’s been popping up on menus in the U.S. in creative executions ranging from lattes to cocktails to soft serve. Even Trader Joes just started making an ube spread.
Flavor-wise, ube is earthy and fragrant, and some say it has notes of vanilla and pistachio. It’s a staple in Filipino cooking, and it’s often transformed into a sweet condiment, ube halaya, that can be spread on toast, added to cake batters and ice creams, and mixed into the popular frozen treat, halo-halo.
So why all of a sudden is ube everywhere? To start, there has never been a better time to eat Filipino food in the U.S., and popular restaurants like Bilao in New York, Sari Sari Store in LA, and Tanám in Boston have helped to raise the profile of the cuisine nationally. Another factor could be ube’s striking color. In our social media–obsessed age, a bright purple cake, bun, or latte makes for great content.
“[Ube is] bright, purple, and the quintessential Filipino dessert experience,” Lloyd Ortuoste, a first-generation Filipino-American and co-owner of Baonanas in New York City’s East Village, says. “It’s nice to see Filipino cuisine become more mainstream and celebrated because it’s been a long time coming.”
At nearby Soft Swerve on the Lower East Side, ube is now the number one flavor. There are only two machines and four flavors, and co-owner Michael Tsang initially considered offering the flavor risky. “We were determined to get people to try something we loved so much!” he says, and attributes the flavor’s success to their meticulous care with the ingredients.
Whether you’re a longtime fan or totally new to ube, there are many ways to try it through DoorDash. If you’re in New York and looking for an ice cream fix, try either Swoft Serve or Smoove. The former is light, fluffy, toweringly high soft serve, and the latter is a rich, creamy traditional ice cream. If you’re looking for a less frozen dessert, there are mochi donuts at Mochi Mochi iconic cream puff–style eclairs at Beard Papa's and cheesecake at Mama Fina's. Ube’s color has made it a popular addition to drinks, like the Witch’s Brew at Brooklyn Kolache, a blend of cold brew and a housemade ube syrup, or the Ube Ume cocktail at Wayan, made with white rum, sake, ume (the sour Japanese plum), and ube. In the East Village at Baonanas, the founders took inspiration for their banana pudding from the popular Filipino treat, leche flan, a silky smooth caramel-topped custard. Their flavors rotate, but they always have ube on the menu.
California has many terrific places to sample ube. The ube mille crepe cake from Oh Dessert Cafe in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset has a serious wow factor — it’s a dessert made for the Instagram age if we’ve ever seen one, but it holds up in the flavor department. The innumerable layers of razor-thin ube cake are filled with ube pastry cream and topped with an ube dust. You can find ube in horchata at the Hawaiian-influenced cafe Lilikoi, or a halo-halo flavored milk tea at The Sarap Shop. In LA, we’re partial to the crushed graham cracker–topped ube upside down pie at East Hollywood’s Oi Asian Fusion and the deeply purple Basque-style ube cheesecake at Grand Central Market’s Sari Sari Store. And no list on where to try ube would be complete without at least one boba shop: Our pick is Boba Guys. Grab a light and airy latte made with housemade ube marmalade, silky coconut milk, and a touch of spice from one of their locations in LA or San Francisco.
In the Northeast, you’ll find our favorite purple potato in Boston at Earnest Drinks, where it comes pureed into a milky frappe or in a housemade pint of ice cream. D.C. is home to the restaurant with the most ube options on the menu: Mount Pleasant’s Purple Patch, where you’ll find it in everything from pancakes to toast. The best way to sample it might be in their ube waffle topped with Filipino fried chicken and served with a side of ube ice cream. If you’re in the Midwest, Chicago’s got some for you at the Vietnamese restaurant Ca Phe Da in a creamy custard.
That should get you well on your way to getting a taste of what ube is — if you don’t already know.