Sacred Ubi

The ubi is a staple root crop in Bohol, which is the largest producer of the crop in the Philippines. There are several ubi varieties grown in the province such as the traditional, aromatic kinampay, kabus-ok, iniling, tamisan, baliganhon, binanag, gimnay and binato (BAR Research & Development Digest). The most famous of these varieties is the kinampay, which has marbled purple flesh and is well-known for its aroma. It is behind the colour and flavour of that famous Nestle Magnolia ice cream!

Ubi is also venerated by us Bol-anons as a sacred crop. In fact, we kiss it and utter a humble apology if accidentally dropped. When I was young, my late aunt used to bring some ubi kabus-ok and sometimes, kinampay, when she comes down (molugsong) from Corella. We would later cook it into binignit and ubi jam from the kinampay.

Once, being a child I got careless in handling some ubi she just brought down. I accidentally dropped some of it. Right away I was told off by my aunt! She lectured me about taking care of the crop and treating it with more respect next time. And then she told me to kiss the dropped ubi and carefully replace them in the bukag. It was bizarre! But I did it anyway otherwise I will get a second telling off from my father.

Zeareal had the same experience and even offered an explanation as to why we Bol-anons hold the ubi as sacred. The ubi was said to be brought by Chinese traders to Bohol, particularly in Dauis, Panglao Island, in the 10th century. The root crop thrived well and became an important part of the people there. Incidentally, these people are part of the Dapitan or Bo-ol Kingdom. However, the kingdom was destroyed by Ternateans in 1563. The survivors fled the area and with them their knowledge of the ubi.

The highlanders then settled the place. During a great famine caused by a long drought, many people starved and died. The hungry natives searched for food, asking their God to help them ease their suffering. Then, someone stumbled upon the ubi, which eventually saved the natives from hunger. Because of this, they held ubi as their saviour; for them, kissing it is not enough as their way of saying thanks to God.

My father told me of a similar experience as a child during World War II. They would scavenge for ubi as food. Aside from being delicious it is also highly nutritious so he swore that if not for ubi they would have died of hunger. They were constantly on the run from Japanese occupation forces so looking for food was not easy.

There is an annual Ubi Festival held in Bohol in order to promote the root crop. I understand it is now on its ninth year. I still remember the first festival that was held in Dauis in 2000. I was then a team member of a UP project promoting comprehensive education and community development to the local government of the town. One of the active partners of this project were Bol-anon alumni of UP, which counted among them UP Los BaƱos agriculture graduates. It was they who thought out the idea for this festival. It was a delight seeing all those different types and products of ubi.

In the second year, I brought along some South Korean university students who came to do volunteer work and engage in cultural immersion in Dauis. Their visit was also connected to UP’s project with the local government.

Today, ubi is tagged as one of the Philippines’ five banner crops for export by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). In the country and abroad, it is being marketed in the forms of puree, power, dried chips, cubes in syrup, ice cream, halaya and many others. The ubi or purple yam is the most expensive tuber crop in the country. Its selling price is much higher than white or Irish potato, sweet potato, cassava and taro (BAR Research and Development Digest).

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