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Ubiquitous Ube

By David Haldane

January 5, 2023


I have always had a tenuous relationship with Filipino food.

A 2019 column entitled “My Life as an Ichthyophobic” confessed an aversion to seafood that has plagued my whole life. Wikipedia defines ichthyophobia as “fear of fish, including fear of eating fish or fear of dead fish.” Definitely not helpful in a province famed for the seafood of which it is proud.

Nor, being an avid salad-eater with instinctive vegetarian tendencies, have I found much joy in other common Philippine fare. Both sisig and crispy pata, made respectively from pork cheeks and pig knuckles, leave me uninspired. I’m not a fan of stewed oxtail, cooked mole crickets, or whole frogs stuffed with minced pork. And neither fresh snails cooked in coconut milk nor pig guts stewed in warm pork blood have tempted me to take a bite. You’ve already guessed that I also haven’t tasted the nation’s infamous balut, a popular delicacy comprising 17-day-old duck embryos still encased in their shells.

Ah, but local deserts are a whole different thing. Give me a heaping halo-halo piled high with shaved ice, banana, garbanzos, milk, and ice cream on absolutely any day. A yummy custard leche flan is certainly worth dying for. And ube, (pronounced oobay) that wonderful purple ingredient infusing local cakes, shakes and creams, has become one of the grand passions of an otherwise uninspired culinary life.

Which is why I’m happy to report that my favorite flavor is about to make its debut on the global stage. At least that’s the prediction of New York Times food writer Kim Severson, who included the luscious desert on her annual list of edibles about to go viral.

“Ube, a slightly nutty-tasting, vanilla-accented purple yam from the Philippines,” she noted, “is showing up on lots of trend lists and in all kinds of foods and drinks, from pies and waffles to lattes and ube coladas. It easily made the list of colors and flavors that capture the mood of 2023… The yam’s popularity is riding on an interest in food with bright, natural colors like dragon fruit, lychee and purple Peruvian corn.”

Other foods on Severson’s list include yaupon tea made from American holly trees, along with cocktails and deserts imbued with avocado. Also, Nigerian egusi stew featuring goat, cow skin, mushrooms and seeds, coastal cocktails garnished with crab claws and oysters, and crispy chicken skins served with nachos and ketchup.

That last item I can see myself indulging in regularly. And I certainly won’t mind having an occasional fruit cocktail primed with avocado green.

As for the various unsweetened items of nourishment ensconced in the Filipino diet, well, I suppose I’ll just have to continue treading lightly. I’m not looking forward, for instance, to revisiting an experience we encountered four years ago after a fun-loving, face-licking yellow dog named Sandy wandered onto the road in front of our house to get smashed by a car.

“There’s good news and bad news,” the construction foreman then working on our home announced immediately upon our return from a weekend away. “The bad news is that Sandy is dead. The good news is that the workers had a wonderful dinner.”

Nor do I anticipate with eagerness the daily Filipino breakfasts enthusiastically served from our kitchen comprising enormous rice mounds topped by stinky fried fish. Thanks, but I’m strictly a coffee, eggs, and instant oatmeal man. As for lunch and dinner, well, thanks again, but please just give me a salad.





David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” will be released this month. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and sometimes radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.


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