How ube saved Boholanos from hunger, became sacred crop 2
Boiled ube. Photo by Judgefloro on Wikimedia Commons
Food & Drink

How ube saved Boholanos from hunger and earned its stature as sacred crop

Making and enjoying homemade ube was the most normal thing for the author when she was a child. Now she wonders if this remains true in many Philippine households
Reynadel Cayetano | May 28 2023

[For the 5th consecutive year, ANCX is honored to be publishing the winners of the annual Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award. Now on its 20th year, the theme revolves around “Roots, Fruits and Vegetables.” We begin our series of winning essays with this piece on ube—its history, present, and future. This first prize winner of the 2023 DGF Awards has the original title “Reclaiming Philippine Ube.”] 

When I was younger, I would watch my Tita Edios prepare ube halaya (purple yam jam) from scratch at home. She would task my sisters and I to wash, peel, and grate the yams, after which, the hours of slow-cooking and continuous stirring would commence. She would mix the grated ube and condensed milk in a wok, stirring it tirelessly over and over. After about three hours, she would melt some butter and add it to the thick paste, and the smell of creamy, buttery, and slightly nutty halaya would fill our kitchen. Once my aunt was done preparing several llanera (tin container) of the ube, I would scrape off its remaining traces from the wok with my spoon and lick it with delight.

Such a tradition has been a core childhood memory of mine, but during that time, I thought it was the most normal thing in every Filipino household. It was, of course, though I’m just not sure it still is today.

Ube, or Dioscorea Alata, is one of the most valued species under the genus Dioscorea which has 600 species, 150 of which are cultivated for food. Also called water yam and greater yam, it is a climbing herb with a color ranging from flesh to deep purple. Its stems have wings and twine to the right, with tuber shapes ranging from round, cylindrical, and irregular. 

Ube is generally a healthier alternative to regular yams due to its higher antioxidant content, which is said to help prevent DNA damage, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer, according to a Kansas University study. It contains vitamins A, C, and E, and high levels of potassium and fiber. Its deep, Instagram-worthy purple hue is a notable source of anthocyanins, a chemical that helps reverse cognitive and motor function decline due to aging. Ube is planted in the summer, and usually harvested from October to February.

Ube’s center of origin is unknown, but a quick Google search will tell you that while it grows in some parts of Southeast Asia, West Africa, and South America, it is most popularly grown in the Philippines. There’s no written documentation of the earliest ube recipe, but remains of ube were being recovered from the Ille Cave archaeological site of Palawan from 11,000 BC. Food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria said it was in 1613 when ube was mentioned in the first Tagalog and Spanish dictionary, but it was only in 1918 that the second earliest Philippine cookbook contained a recipe for ‘jalea de calabaza’ or pumpkin jam, which may have inspired ube halaya jam as we know it.

Northern Philippines Root Crops Research and Training Center (NPRCRTC) Director Cynthia Kiswa shared that they’re focusing on four commercialized ube varieties: the Kinampay, Sampero, Zambal, and Mindoro. Each may be differentiated by their shape, color, aroma, and taste. Among the four, the Kinampay, which originated in Bohol, outdoes the other varieties in color, aroma, and its slightly nutty, vanilla-like taste; hence, its reputation as the “Queen of Philippine Yams.”

Ube figures prominently in the history of the Boholanos. During pre-Hispanic times, the natives experienced a long drought when all vegetation died, and new settlers in the municipalities of Dawis, Panglao, and Panghayon in Bohol starved. Only ube survived and provided the locals with sustenance. From then on, it has been venerated as a sacred crop, so much so that when someone dropped an ube on the ground, they had to kiss it in apology. This crop is so endeared to the people of Bohol they even included it in the Boholano Hymn.  

Yet despite ube’s cultural and economic significance, ube farmers continue to face hurdles in its cultivation. Esmeraldo Maligsa, President of the Bohol Ubi Growers Association (BUGA), shared that they have been unable to meet the demand for ube due to lack of capital. Planting ube requires specific soil conditions, which means medium to large scale ube farmers have to pay for laboratory fees just to have their soil analyzed before deciding on a plot of land. Planting materials that are resilient enough against pests and diseases also run low, and this has perhaps contributed to the low supply of ube, which has decreased from 30,074 metric tons in 2006 to 13,9457 metric tons in 2020.

On top of these challenges, the government also needs to be more concerned about the geographic indicators of ube. We need to have our own version of the Protected Designation of Origin or PDO, something that the European Union has been using to protect the authenticity, origin, and traditions associated with their prized products since 1992.

If we can have Thai Jasmine Rice, Hokkaido Milk, and Japanese Miso, why can’t we say Philippine ube? Imagine the sound of that and how its impact could echo through the lives of the farmers, chefs, and artisans who work with this culinary gem.

Reynadel 'Edel' V. Cayetano
Reynadel "Edel" V. Cayetano

Reynadel "Edel" V. Cayetano is a writer with over 15 years experience in award-winning content creation across media platforms (TV, digital, print, on-ground events). She is also a segment producer and story editor. She is a communication arts major graduating cum laude from the University of Santo Tomas.