One of the more unique foodstuffs we came upon in the Philippines was a root vegetable – actually, a type of yam – called ube. On the outside, ube is a bulbous dark root-like clod, but, in the ube’s case, it’s not what’s outside that counts.
In the many times we encountered ube, there was no way that we would have been able to guess that the bright purple ice cream, jam or paste came from the root pictured above. And – speaking only for myself – I would have not thought that it was even closely related to a yam. I would have figured the semi-sweet, subtle and malty-tasting substance to be some sort of Frankenfood. When Bethany excitedly explained the treat to us, the only thing my Midwestern mind could compare it to was rhubarb, another brightly-covered produce item that turns into a delicious dessert thing.
One of Baguio City’s tourist mainstays is Good Shepherd Convent in Mine’s View Park, where tourists and Filipinos, alike stand in line just to buy jars of ube jam. Hoping to see the jam being processed (and to get a taste of ube) we caught a jeepney up to the park.
Disappointment number one is that we weren’t allowed to see the nuns. We asked a few people, and even tried the “journalist” route, but we got nowhere. (Apparently – shockingly – the ladies of the Good Shepherd Convent did not know or care about our blog.) Disappointment number two was that although we bought a bottle of their jam, we took it to a party and forgot about it, rendering the entire leg of that mini-trip useless.
Well, not completely useless. We did get to see an array of other Baguio-born snacks, and from what I remember the bathroom at the center had hand soap and toilet paper.
Even though we missed the ube-boat in jam form, we did get to experience it many times. This was mainly due to Bethany’s obsession with halo-halo, a Filipino dessert that eludes definition; every version of it contains different ingredients. The two main components, though, are consistently shaved ice and condensed milk. And every version of halo-halo we saw featured ube, as well.
One can find, at any given time, corn, white beans, jackfruit, young coconut (called buko), ube ice cream, leche flan (a Spain-inspired custard), rice and colorful yet flavorless jello-like cubes called nata de coco, in the multi-textured, brightly-colored treat. Maya and I shared our first (giant) halo-halo while on a pier in Manila. I remember it sort of tasting like corn flakes in one bite and olives in the next.
Halo-halo was literally everywhere we went. We found it in sit-down restaurants, on tray tables on the side of the road and in fast food joints. The ingredients were commonly for sale at sari-saris, Filipino convenience stores. Above, at a sari-sari in El Nido, from left to right, are: white beans, young coconut, green nata de coco, jackfruit and nata de coco in red, just to brighten up the dish a little more.
Bethany says that it takes three times for westerners to like halo-halo. That sounded like a challenge and so I did my foodie duty and tried it the minimum number of times. To be honest, even after the third time, I was not a fan of the melted, chunky, gaudy dessert. But, as not to upset her, I faked it. An observant bystander would take note, though, that more often than not, my spoon gravitated toward the ube in the sea of strangeness. Halo-halo? Maybe. But ube? Yes.