Ube: What does it mean when a traditional food becomes a trend?

Ube: What does it mean when a traditional food becomes a trend?

Prior to the new year, California-based T. Hasegawa USA declared in its 2024 Food and Beverage Flavor Trends Report that ube will be the flavor of the year. The bright, purple tuberous root hailing from the Philippines has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. But this isn’t the first time the ingredient has been superficially lauded — existing merely as something punchy and not anything more than that. 

Back in 2014, Filipino cuisine as a whole was thrown around as the “next big thing” thanks to Andrew Zimmern. The “Bizarre Foods” host claimed the trend was “just starting” and would officially take off two years later in 2016.  

“I think it’s going to take another year and a half to get up to critical mass, but everybody loves Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food, and it’s all been exploited. The Filipinos combined the best of all of that with Spanish technique,” Zimmern told NBC’s Today at the time. “The Spanish were a colonial power there for 500 years, and they left behind adobo and cooking in vinegar — techniques that, applied to those tropical Asian ingredients, are miraculous.”

Industry trend forecasters soon began claiming the same. In 2015, National Geographic wrote, “The Filipino Food Wave Is Coming” while Mashable declared that Filipino cuisine would be a “huge food trend you’ll devour in 2016.” When the trend failed to take off as anticipated, culinary personalities and industry professionals once again attempted to push it as the hottest trend in waiting. Anthony Bourdain jumped on the bandwagon and so did restaurateur April Bloomfield, who called Filipino food the “next big thing.”

Much of the hype surrounding ube solely fixates on its aesthetics. Ube has a distinctive nutty, vanilla-like flavor profile, but praise is mainly awarded to its bright violet hue, which provides a pop of color in savory dishes, desserts and baked goods. That’s why ube has been called the “new IT Food on Instagram” and most recently, on TikTok. There’s minimal focus, however, on Ube’s rich history and its cultural significance. Many have failed to note that ube (which is not to be confused with purple sweet potato) comes from the yam’s name in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.

Rarely will trend forecasters add that ube is not just a food, but also a symbol of Filipino resilience. Ube Halaya — a classic Filipino dessert made of purple yam, coconut milk, and butter — is commonly served during special occasions as an emblem of both celebration and togetherness.

Ube is also just a sliver of Filipino cuisine, which isn’t regarded as mainstream in the same way as Mexican and Chinese food. In fact, Filipino cuisine is regarded as a “monolithic cuisine,” said chef and former co-host of the “Racist Sandwich Podcast” Soleil Ho in a 2017 Thrillist report. Simply calling it a trend doesn’t do any justice to Filipino chefs or the greater Filipino community, Ho added. Food journalists and major publications aren’t supporting specific Filipino chefs, their cookbooks or their upcoming projects — they’re solely ogling at the cuisine. In 2017, when Scandinavian food (or New Nordic food) grew increasingly popular throughout the United States, the media’s treatment of the cuisine was vastly different:

“All of these stories about Filipino food being the next big trend — they don’t tend to have lists of chefs of restaurants that translate into immediately benefiting the community,” Ho told the outlet. “But when you look at these New Nordic stories, there are links to Amazon pages for cookbooks chefs have written and info on how to get reservations at a chef’s next project.”

That’s all to say that in most cases, merely eating a specific cuisine isn’t an act of respect towards the people and communities behind it. Casting a specific cuisine — or key ingredients within a cuisine — as a trend signifies that it’s fleeting. One minute it’s hot, the next minute it’s not and pushed to the side, ultimately left to be forgotten. That’s not how traditional food should be regarded.

In recent years, there has been much discourse about using the term “ethnic” to describe food. The term itself means “characteristic of or belonging to a non-Western cultural tradition,” which isn’t overtly racist, but has become so covertly. “Ethnic” implies that food made by immigrants — particularly immigrants of color — is cheap and inferior. You’ll rarely see French, German or Italian food be labeled as such. But take a look at Indian, Ethiopian or Filipino cuisines and the “ethnic” label will more often than not be there.

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“Immigrants’ identities are deeply tied to the foods we bring with us,” wrote Lavanya Ramanathan in her piece, titled “Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food ethnic,” for The Washington Post. “When we hear our cuisine described as exotic, hodgepodge, greasy or cheap, you might as well be remarking disdainfully about our clothes or skin color.”

Categorizing a traditional cuisine or food as both “ethnic” and a “trend” thus feels like a double-whammy. There’s also the issue of who determines what constitutes a trend. Typically, it’s white folks — white journalists, white foodies, white culinary experts — who are making such declarations. According to data obtained by Zippia, Inc., an online recruitment service, 67.3% of food writers are white, as of 2021. Comparatively, 12.3% of writers are Hispanic or Latino, 9.5% are Asian and 6.3% are Black. White approval and acceptance basically determines whether a food or cuisine is “trendy.” They also determine whether a food or cuisine is worthy of public acclaim, which is, well, wrong.

As for ube, the tuberous root is becoming more widespread in Western grocery stores and restaurants. Trader Joe’s notably sells a slew of ube-themed food items, including ube flavored ice cream, Ube Mochi Pancake & Waffle Mix and Ube Spread. Many online critics have complained about their lack of authentic ube flavor, saying it’s non-existent in some products and downright disappointing in others: “It’s them trying to profit off of our culture without paying any tribute to us,” wrote one user on Reddit. As for where folks can enjoy delicious, bona fide ube, many recommended checking out local Filipino bakeries, Filipino grocers and Asian stores.  

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