Mixing it up in the Philippines: the story of halo-halo

My first ever halo-halo, a special one, eaten in Manila

Before last week I’d never heard of halo-halo which means ‘mix-mix’ in Tagalog, the dominant language in the Philippines where I’m spending a few days on the island on Camiguin following a work trip to Manila. Now my conversations more often than not end up returning to it.

Halo-halo is one of the most popular desserts among Filipinos and available in virtually every restaurant and café you visit. By European standards, it’s a pretty crazy pudding! It brings together completely different – and seemingly random – ingredients to create something that somehow tastes rather wonderful and is often shared between friends. Whilst halo-halo is widely regarded as an authentically Filipino dish, it is actually the result of many different cultures and countries coming together with influences from Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and American migrants arriving in the Philippines at various points in the country’s history. According to most of the sources I read, halo-halo is most likely derived from a Japanese dessert called kakigori which is essentially shaved ice served with sweet beans. The dessert was brought to the Philippines by pre-war Japanese migrants and when the Americans built the first ice plant on Manila, Insular Ice Plant, in 1902 it rapidly became popularised in Filipino food culture.

The earliest versions of halo-halo were composed only of cooked red beans or mung beans in crushed ice with sugar and milk, a dessert known locally as mongo-ya. Over the years, more ingredients were added, resulting in the development of the modern halo-halo.

So what’s in today’s halo-halo?

The key ingredients are shaved ice, evaporated milk and sugar or syrup. After that it seems that almost anything goes but the ingredients most commonly seen in a halo-halo are:

  • sugar palm fruit or kaong which are often dyed a red colour
  • coconut sport (macapuno) which is the thick soft flesh of a ‘mutant’ coconut
  • plantains cooked in syrup (minatamis na saging)
  • candied jackfruit (langkâ)
  • agar jellies (gulaman) often in a bright lurid green colour
  • tapioca pearls which are also used in bubble tea which originates from Taiwan but is very popular in the Philippines
  • nata de coco which is a essentially a firm jelly made from coconut milk
  • caramelised sweet potato (kamote)
  • sweetened beans
  • pounded toasted young rice (pinipig) which closely resemble cornflakes in appearance and taste
  • leche flan which is also a very popular Filipino desert eaten separately from halo-halo

Every version of halo-halo I’ve tried has also included sweetcorn which is the weirdest part for me but sweetcorn is a very popular and common addition to Filipino food – I’ve even seen sweetcorn ice-cream! Several have also included thin strips of young coconut.

Discussions of halo-halo generate wistful conversations among my Filipino friends. Joy explained how her grandmother used to spend hours carefully preparing all of the ingredients for halo-halo when she was a child, filling jars with candied vegetables and beans ready for assembly. Small stalls would also be set up on the side of streets at the height of summer and people would arrive with their own glasses which would be filled with shaved ice, evaporated milk and a variety of ingredients from the list above as a summertime treat. This still happens in some neighbourhoods.

But things have changed in the world of halo-halo and it is these changes that generate the most animated discussions. Few families now have the time or inclination to prepare all the separate ingredients, most often buying these ready made in jars from supermarkets or only indulging in the dessert when they are eating out. Sweetened aduki and mung beans have been replaced by the ubiquitous soya bean, cheaper but very different in both texture and taste.

And then there is the question of the purple yam (ube).

Ube has become extremely popular in the Philippines as an ingredient in ube jam (made by combining purple yam, butter and coconut milk) and ube ice cream, both of which give an intense colour and flavour. Whilst an ‘ordinary’ halo-halo includes neither of these two ingredients, the addition of ube jam and, more recently, bright purple ube ice cream have become associated with ‘special’ halo-halo and growing controversy around how the dessert should be both assembled and eaten. In general terms most of the ingredients (fruits, beans, and other sweets) are first placed at the bottom with the sugar or syrup, followed by the shaved ice. This is then topped with leche flan and/or ube jam. Evaporated milk is poured onto the mixture. If the halo-halo is ‘special’ the ube ice cream will then be added on top together with the pinipig and possibly also a chocolate wafer (a topic potentially deserving of an entirely separate blog!) 

Layers of sweetened beans and fruit, agar jellies and sweetcorn topped with evaporated milk on shaved ice

One school of thought is that the mere addition of the ice cream destroys the very principle of halo-halo because when everything is mixed together, as it should be, the ice cream fundamentally changes the flavour of the dish. And if all the ingredients are not mixed together that fundamentally undermines the principle of the dish which is, after all, called ‘mix-mix’.

Special halo-halo after the mix-mix

But purple ube ice cream was a feature of all three halo-halo that I’ve come across during my time in the Philippines and it would appear that what was once ‘special’ is increasingly becoming the norm. This version is the one that is most popular and which has been internationalised as part of Filipino food culture. To give just one example, halo-halo was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown when its host Anthony Bourdain visited a branch of the iconic Filipino fast food chain Jollibee in Los Angeles, praising halo-halo and describing it as ‘oddly beautiful’

The final word goes to the famous Filipino poet, journalist and screenwriter Jose F. Lacaba who has written a poem about halo-halo entitled “Pagkain ng special halo-halo: Isang palaisipan sa tag-init’ or ‘How to eat special halo-halo: A summer dilemma’. Reflecting on the challenges of ‘special’ halo-halo he concludes that in the end none of this matters: regardless of whether halo-halo is mixed in the glass it is mixed in the stomach. Better to simply order and enjoy than spend time and energy worrying about the point in the process in which all the ingredients come to be mixed!

On that basis I’m intending to have a go at making halo-halo when I return to Italy albeit that I haven’t yet worked out how to source all the ingredients and may end up replacing some of them with local variations. If you are interested in doing the same then this is a good recipe although it’s American origins are reflected in the choice of ingredients. This one is simpler for those living in Europe but I like this one best because it tells you how to make each of the individual components. I’ve also added some recipes in the list above.

Kain na!

Special halo-halo with the addition of pinipig, pounded toasted young rice

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dudley Lieto says:

    Good article! We are linking to this great post on our website. Keep up the great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s