Welcome to the first issue of meryenda Monday. For the sake of this newsletter, ube and ubi are used interchangeably.
Ube— the viral trend that peaked amidst the summer of 2020, propelled partly by its vivid violet hue and likely largely due to quarantine isolation loneliness. Suddenly, ube crinkles and oozing ube cheese pandesal proliferated the social media galaxy. Ube barraged through the complexities of social media algorithms, and like many others, I suddenly found myself craving this purple tuber.
Unfortunately, resisting a trend only to succumb to influence leaves you at the tail-end of the masses. I scavenged the aisles of multiple Seafood City stores for halaya and almost pried the last bag of frozen ube from an indecisive shopper who ultimately decided that bag was hers to keep. Ube halaya and ube powder were backordered online for weeks at a time. My lag resulted instead in a basket of barbeque-flavored Clover chips (but who’s complaining?). However, the scarcity led to a question I would gravitate back to: we know where ube comes from, but where does it really come from?
If you’ve ever done a search on ube, you’d be hard-pressed to find much on ube origins. Several articles regurgitate its ties to the Philippines, but I was yearning for something that delved a bit deeper. After filtering through paragraphs lauding its darling hue and sugary manifestations, I stumbled on a statement declared by the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry Export Marketing Director, Senen M. Perlada.
Mr. Perlada quoted,
“There’s a craze in the US for ube products— ube ice cream specifically. But there’s not enough ube to go around.”
The article itself was only a few paragraphs, but I was intrigued. Not enough ube? I wanted to know more so I did what I always do when curiosity slides to my fingertips: I sent an email. A few weeks passed. When it seemed like my mind had obliterated all lingering traces of ube, a flagged message appeared in my inbox. It was a response from Mr. Perlada.
The email began like this:
Dear Ms. Jessica,
Thank you so much for your mail and your interest in Philippine ube. I must inform you that I already retired from the DTI Export Marketing Bureau late last year and your interest just came to my attention as a residual forwarded message.
His introduction dampened my spirits, thinking my sudden interest in ube had been halted by retirement’s unfortunate timing. Yet, Mr. Perlada was kind enough to forward my queries to the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA). The answers I received immediately surfaced my obvious disconnect with Philippine ube, circling back to my initial question.
Where does ube really come from?
Ube, or Dioscorea alata, originates in the tropics of Asia. Human migration has naturalized the tuber in various pockets of the world, imparting it various names: ratalu, khoai mỡ, ji abana, winged yam, purple yam, water yam, or most simply, yam.
Yam, a staple food crop, has long played economic and cultural importance in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbeans. Ube happens to fall within the three major cultivated species. While a plethora of cultivars exist today (Africa now accounts for more than 90% of global yam production), the intensely purple varieties grow primarily in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines. According to Mr. Mon Yedra from the DA Agribusiness and Marketing Assistance Service (AMAS), Bohol reigns as the top ube producing province in the Philippines, accounting for 35% of the country’s overall production in 2019.
Bohol, specifically Panglao Island and Guindulman, is home to what’s considered the queen of Philippine yams: ubing kinampay. Kinampay is one of two ube varieties recommended by the Philippines’ National Seed Industry Council. The other is zambal.
As a generation accustomed to store-bought ube, we’ve unknowingly detached ourselves from ube’s genetic diversity; powders and packages have erased local cultivar names such as kabus-ok, tamisan, binanag, and sapiro from conversation. Even color variations —ranging from marbled white-purple to deep violet— are eclipsed by a defining alluring purple that paints every ube reincarnation.
In the Philippines, where ube thrives, even the locals remain unaware of its geographical bounty. Good Shepherd Mountain Maid, popular in Baguio City for championing local delicacies (and the only ube halaya my dad claims he will buy), once introduced white ube halaya after a purple ube supply shortage. In a Monthly Agriculture article interview, Sister Bautista stated, “When we introduced white ube, not many people believed it was ube. They said it was sweet potato, taro, or tugi (lesser yam).”
If a certain tinge of purple is calcified into our expectations of ube, can the Philippines sustain the industry to meet such a demanding standard?
Realities of Meeting Ube Demand
The most recent data from AMAS and the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics presented a declining trend in ube production. Ube output decreased from 30,074 metric tons (mt) in 2006 to just 13,957 mt in 2020. While the crop has drastically plummeted throughout the years, the almost magical way in which we are able to access global food supply veils many problems within food production. As Philippine ube crops dwindle, we swim in blissful ignorance in the glorious deep end of ube halaya.
“Ube production is very limited due to poor seed system, production, and post-production practices. Farmers grow yams in small patches of land, supply the processors with mixed white and purple rice varieties, of high percentage mechanically damaged tubers, poor storability and inconsistent supply. The seasonal availability of ube affects production expansion of agro-processors and exporters,” explains Mr. Yedra.
Without structural support and a more unified shift across the supply chain towards sustainable farming practices, the hands that toil the land will continue to struggle to meet the growing ube demand. Acreage may expand but as centuries of colonial occupation have taught, expansion doesn’t necessarily equate progress. How then do we begin untethering ube from its culinary capabilities to fit into a larger ecology?
Revisiting the Land
We can learn from our elders, who, before the commercialization of ube, considered the root as sacred. In Bohol, ube was a staple in times of hardship; alongside coconuts and bananas, it was readily available to natives hiding in the mountains in the wartime years when food became scarce during the Spanish, American, and Japanese occupations. Bohol legend says that when drought swept the land and famine persisted, ube was the sole crop that survived to provide Boholanos nourishment. Ube was so venerated that Boholanos would kiss ube that accidentally fell to the ground and apologized, a sign of respect honoring the food given to them by Bathala, originator and ruler of the universe in ancient Tagalog theology.
Historian Jose Marianito Luspo explains,
"I think the practicing of kissing the ubi originated… to make people respect a very important root crop for us. It is interesting to know that among the people of the Philippines, it is the Boholanos who had the long and intimate relationship with the crop. Boholanos learned to revere it. In a very special way, ubi is considered more useful than rice.”
Ube is a culinary gem we take for granted, glorified as an exotic ornament to propel Philippine desserts and flavors to the global stage. Our ancestors remind us of a more grounding and humble lesson: it was us who first relied on ube. Macli’ing Dulag, a respected pangat (tribal chieftain) of the Butbut tribe, died fighting for the land, acknowledging how it nourishes and is a source of life. His words echo a message on the responsibility we owe to the food we eat.
He declared, “How can you own that which outlives you?”
When we crave for the sweet familiarity of home, we turn to ube in all its sticky, baked, steamed, milky, and molded expressions. We must take care of ube as it takes care of us. In 2020, Covid brought grief, loss, uncertainty, and doubt. In that collective struggle, ube brought a collective comfort. Witnessing this transformation makes me wonder: is ube reflective of our generation? After all, our taste for ube persevered through colonial trauma, disguised cultural reformation, and a global pandemic. Although I can’t say that a flavor can define an entire culture, I will say ube is thriving more than ever in the midst of a cultural reckoning and reclamation. Ube reminds us we can move forward. To move forward with intention, we must also acknowledge our past.
Ube halaya graphic provided by Lora Hlavsa, a self-described “professional dabbler”. A designer by trade, her illustration work is informed by intersectionality and inspired by femininity and pop culture. Raised by a Filipina mother and an American father in Minnesota and California, identity has been a core focus of Lora’s work, and her bold and colorful pieces aim to convey a lush, multidimensional world that reflects the many layers of the daily human experience. Find more of her work on her website or on Instagram.
Interesting and quite hard to believe the % of ube production in Bohol! I'm from Bohol (since 2019) and yet I haven't heard YET of the legend. Thanks for sharing. :)