It is purple yam to the rest of the world. It is ube (pronounced oo-beh) in its different forms to Filipinos. Growing up, halayang ube (thick ube pudding) was the sole form of ube I knew. It was a special treat hand carried by a relative from my father’s hometown of Calapan, Oriental Mindoro to Manila. My then younger and stronger uncle had the sole responsibility of stirring the mixture by hand for hours until he got the right consistency. Prior to the stirring, he also had the privilege of grinding the ube to bits by hand with the stone grinder. Using a mechanized tool, he felt, to grind and stir was simply blasphemous because it interfered with the taste somehow botching up the chemistry of the ube. My uncle’s homemade ube was not bottled like the commercial ones. It came in a llanera, container for leche flan, and, using a service spoon, we’d scoop a dollop or two on a plate to eat it. I usually ate it straight from the serving spoon, so the next one had to get a new serving spoon.
A meeting with old friend Harriet led me to two forms of ube. One was a reworked version of the traditional Filipino dessert-snack, halo-halo. The second was a fusion of Western and Filipino desserts. Halo-halo is a cold concoction of layered goodness. The first layer of a usual parfait glass is a bed of coconut preserves in its various mutations, sweet red and green beans, and rice krispies at the bottom of the glass followed by shaved ice generously drizzled with evaporated milk. The final layer is a topping of cubed leche flan or a dollop of ube or a scoop of ice cream or all three toppings sitting prettily on a hill of ice. The reworked halo-halo I stumbled upon was at Bench Café. Located on the second level of Greenbelt 3, it is best to turn left at the Green Belt entrance facing Fairmont Hotel and follow the path. Walk a bit slowly once you pass Starbucks while looking to your left – look for a flight of staircase curving up to the second level. Bench Café is an offshoot of the clothing company Bench, a prominent brand of my high school and university years, which has branched out into the food industry. A craving for ube egged me to walk through the café’s heavy wooden doors, and into a space wrapped in white, wood, and glass, and a black-white floor pattern that seemed to play eye tricks.
Bench Café’s halo-halo was an explosion of ube, which was the first noticeable refashioning, in a 16-oz cup. Second, where the halo-halo bits started and ice ended were blurred; the shaved ice had transformed into snow ice much like the snow ice of a Korean patbingsu. The coming together of the ube snow ice with the ube ice cream (or was it halayang ube or both?), after plunging the spoon into the cup and pulling it up, was one smooth, ube tango on the palate sans the imagined cloying sweetness.
Cranking up our ube overload was a slice of their ube leche flan cake. The combination of ube cake – a Filipino take on the regular cake – and leche flan is one of the two fusion dessert trends taking off in Manila. The other transmogrification is pairing ube with brazo de mercedes as done and popularized by baker Bellefleur by Beatrix with her sought-after frozen ube brazo. She has also come out with her own version of the ube leche flan cake in her bake shop in Greenhills. Bench Café’s ube leche flan cake is smothered in cream cheese icing, swirled with ube flowers, and sprinkled with ube bits with each bite a harmonized blend of sweet and sour as the sour cream cheese taste surfaces immediately after the sweetness of the leche flan. The trick to tasting such harmony is to thoroughly slide the fork from the top to the bottom to get all layers of the cake – ube cake, leche flan, ube cake, and icing – and get the flavors at every bite.
Ube overload is an indulgence that I find myself looking forward to every time I come home. It is a trip down memory lane. It is savoring the happy moments in my childhood. It is a sweet surrender to my craving for my favorite Filipino dessert without the guilt.