We continue our journey through Filipino cuisine with one of the most emblematic and colorful desserts of the country: ube halaya.
Ube halaya, also called ube jam or halayang ube is a dessert that is prepared from boiled and mashed purple yam, that is mixed with condensed milk, butter and sometimes coconut milk. This mixture thickens as it simmers, and it sets in a container as it cools down in the fridge. It is often topped with browned grated coconut, condensed milk, or toasted coconut solids called latik, which is what I used for my version.
Ube (pronounced oo-beh), also known scientifically as dioscorea alata, or simply purple yam, is a species of yam, a tuberous root vegetable. Ube varies in color from vivid violet to bright mauve, but some varieties are actually white. Unlike lavender that I used for my lavender panna cotta, ube’s natural purple color is vibrant and remains after cooking. It is now used in a variety of pastries such as donuts, cheesecake, cakes, flans, muffins, cupcakes and other sweet treats that it’s not always known for in the Philippines.
Purple yam is native to a number of regions across the world, which explains why it has different local names. It is called ratalu or violet yam in India, rasa valli kilangu in Tamil, dandila in Sinhala (Sri Lanka), khoai mỡ in Vietnam, murasaki imo in Japan. It is called ji or ji abana in Southern Nigeria and isu ewura in Southwestern Nigeria.
Because of its rather sweet flavor, ube is often used in sweet recipes rather than savory ones. It is a staple ingredient in ube halaya but also in halo-halo, a hugely popular Filipino sweet treat composed of shaved ice, evaporated milk and a number of toppings like ube (in the form of ube jam), tapioca and plantains.
Ube is often confused with taro. Taro, which we already used in recipes such as taro rosti (taro root) or Caribbean oil down (taro leaf), is also a popular ingredient in Filipino cuisine. It is however white on the inside and not purple, though it often turns purple once cooked. Taro is traditionally used in savory Filipino recipes, while ube is more commonly used to prepare sweet treats.
If you cannot find fresh ube, you may be able to find it in dehydrated powder, ube extract or prepared ube jam (ube halaya), which is easy to make sweet treats with it.
I have the chance to live in Los Angeles, where some of the early Filipino immigrants settled after Louisiana, in the 1800s. Now, about 600,000 Filipinos reside in the Los Angeles metro area alone. Today, Filipino Americans actually represent the largest population of Asian Americans in California and they also have one of the oldest communities of Asian Americans in the United States. I have started shopping at local Filipino markets for almost 5 years now, and I always love going to Seafood City, one of the largest in the city, not only for Filipino products, but also for fresh fish. Over there, I can easily find frozen mashed ube. If you can find it already prepared like this, I highly recommend it. It is the equivalent of the American “canned pumpkin shortcut” to make pumpkin pie! This is also where I was able to find those traditional llenara molds, or leche flan molds, that are often used to make halayang ube.
Ube halaya is popularly served during the Christmas holiday season in the Philippines. It is as traditional as collecting twelve round fruits for New Year. Having twelve round fruits on the dinner table as the clock strikes twelve is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year. Preparing something purple (the color of a 100 peso bill) is also supposed to bring more prosperity.
The first time I had ube was actually in Hawaii more than 10 years ago. But this was the first time I cooked with ube. Another discovery for me with this Filipino dessert was latik. Latík is prepared with coconut cream (or milk) that is simmered until it reduces to coconut oil and that solids (known as coconut curds) begin to form. These solids are left to fry in the coconut oil until golden brown. Then, they can be separated from the oil with a cheesecloth or a fine sieve. Latík is often used as topping for ube halaya, but also a number of other Filipino desserts like maja blanca (Filipino version of blancmange) or sapin-sapin (glutinous rice and coconut dessert).
Ube, with its magnificent deep purple color, makes for highly photogenic pictures. And this is the reason why it has recently become the darling of Instagram. Add to this the death of Prince last year, and I would almost argue that it is not orange but purple that is the new black!
Recipe of Ube Halaya
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Rest time: 30 minutes
Ingredients (for 4 people)
- 1 (16 oz) package frozen grated ube, thawed
1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup butter
In a pan over medium heat, add grated ube, evaporated milk, condensed milk, and butter. Bring to a boil, until butter is melted and ube is incorporated.
Lower heat and continue to simmer, stirring regularly, for about 45 minutes. The mixture should have the consistency of a thick, soft, sticky dough and pulls slightly from the sides of the pan.
Grease the sides of your molds (ideally llanera molds) with coconut oil (from the latik preparation) or melted butter.
Transfer the ube halaya into the molds and flatten using a greased spoon. Allow to cool in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
To serve, unmold ube halaya onto a plate. Lightly brush the top with coconut oil and garnish with latik. Ube halaya is typically served at room temperature.
Recipe of Latik
Cooking time: 2 hours
1 (14 oz) can coconut cream
In a pan over medium heat, add coconut cream and bring to a boil.
Continue to cook, stirring occasionally for about an hour.
Lower heat to low and simmer.
After another 30 to 45 minutes, coconut oil will start to separate and solids will begin to form.
Continue stirring regularly and scrape the sides and bottom of the pan to avoid burning.
Continue to cook and stir until the coconut curds turn golden brown.
Drain latik from the oil with a cheesecloth or a fine sieve.