We get to the root of purple desserts.

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Ube ice cream in bowls on a table with a scoop and spoons
Credit: Getty Images

You don't even need to taste ube ice cream to be enchanted by it—the rich purple color can woo even the most dubious ice cream connoisseur—but one lick just might get you hooked. So what is ube? The answer might surprise you.

What Is Ube?

Pronounced OO-beh, ube is a purple yam—a starchy tuber (Dioscorea alata) very closely related to white-fleshed yams, but distinct from the candied "yams" you may find on the Thanksgiving table. Ube has origins in Southeast Asia, but it is most commonly used in Filipino cuisine.

Yams versus Ube

Ube is very similar to red yams, and they both get mistaken for sweet potatoes. Both look like a root and are narrower than a sweet potato—the biggest difference is the color. The skin of ube is a creamy, off-white color while the flesh of raw ube is a light purple (it becomes dark purple when it's cooked). The skin of a red yam is burgundy and the flesh is bright orange. (Here's a quick explainer if you don't know the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.)

What Does Ube Taste Like?

The flavor and texture of cooked ube is strikingly similar to red yams and sweet potatoes. It's difficult to find a distinct difference. However, there is a very subtle difference in the texture—it's slightly dryer than red yams and sweet potatoes, giving it a slightly powdery feel.

Taro versus Ube

Taro and ube get confused a lot as well—they're both very common in Southeast Asian cuisine, and they have some similarities, but they're technically different. First off: taro is a corm and ube is a tuber, but those are terms for the same function—they grow underground and act as food storage for the plants that grown from them. But unlike the purple yam, taro is large in size and it has a hairy brown skin with white flesh and little purple specks. Cooked, taro is similar in texture and flavor to a potato, only it's slightly gummy and has a subtly sweet and nutty flavor. And, lastly, taro is used in both sweet and savory dishes while ube is mostly used for desserts.

Ube Desserts

In the United States, you'll mostly find ube in the form of ice cream, but in the Philippines, one of the most common desserts is ube halaya or purple yam jam. It's made by grating cooked ube and then combining it with butter, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. It's then simmered and strained to make a spreadable jam kind of like apple butter. From there, it can be eaten by itself or used in other desserts like ice cream or halo-halo (translated as mix-mix) which is kind of like a sundae.

Where to Buy Ube

Ube might be a bit difficult to find, but well-stocked Asian markets like 99 Ranch often carry fresh ube. Online, you can buy bottled ube halaya as well as both ube extract and ube powder, which can be used for cakes, cookies and other desserts.