You probably know what the answer is when you ask kids which toppings they would like on their ice cream, right!? Exactly: All of them! As long as it is colorful and sweet, they usually don’t shy away from the weirdest combos. Now, looking at this popular summertime treat from the Philippines could make you think that this is exactly what happened. And even the dessert’s name quite precisely describes its look as Halo-Halo stands for mishmash in Tagalog.
Yet, it isn’t only children that are into this wild mix. Today, Halo-Halo is the most popular Filipino dessert with young and old alike. In the tropical country where people are constantly looking for refreshment in the scorching heat, the Filipino shaved ice dessert provides welcomed cooling.
No matter whether it is a street stall or a fancy restaurant, Halo-Halo is simply a staple at any kind of place. No menu would be complete without it. Even Chowking, the popular Filipino fast food chain, included Halo-Halo in their steady menu and had a substantial influence in creating the modern version of the dessert as we know it today. After all, they coined the familiar spelling. The grammatically correct term would actually be “haluhalo”. Thus, it also doesn’t come as a big surprise that the colorful mix has become the restaurant’s best-selling product.
At the same time, Jollibee, another Filipino restaurant chain, is opening outlets around the world, attracting huge lines of people that want to get their hands on the sweet deliciousness. So what is the craze all about?
A Rainbow Made Of Sweets
Well, let’s take a closer look at the beloved chaos. The layered dessert is a wild and colorful mix of sweet treats and comes in many different variations. Though, any proper Halo-Halo will usually contain some standard ingredients such as shaved ice, mung beans, kidney beans, garbanzos, coconut strips (Macapuno), crushed young rice (Pinipig) and saba bananas.
Wait a minute…beans in a dessert? You heard right! While it might sound strange for Westerners, the beans and other legumes actually make for a great flavor and texture. When boiled, they gain a rather sweet flavor on their own but are further sweetened by adding sugar in the process. Halo-Halo without sweet beans would simply not be the real deal.
All of these basics are complemented depending on region and taste by various other ingredients. Examples hereof are agar or gelatin cubes, jackfruit, star apple, tapioca, Kaong palm fruit or sago starch. A very popular addition that goes by the name Nata de Coco is another Filipino specialty that you may not have encountered before. The chewy and translucent jelly is made by fermenting coconut water. You see we could go on and on with possible toppings. The list is sheer endless.
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Now, you probably wonder: why do they not mention this extraordinarily beautiful scoop of violet ice cream at all? And you are right. In the modern version of the Filipino dessert, ube ice cream is probably its most distinct element. Ube is a special purple yam native to the Philippines. Especially in a boiled and mashed form, known as ube halaya, the root has always been lending its sweet, nutty flavor and vibrant color to many traditional Filipino desserts. While classic ube halaya has been an integral part of Halo-Halo for a long time, the purple ice cream is a more recent addition.
So, once all the different fruits, beans and other sweets are layered on top of each other in a bowl or tall glass and covered with shaved ice, the whole mix receives a generous serving of evaporated milk for some extra creamy sweetness. Ube ice cream, ube halaya or leche flan crown the delicious mishmash. And since more is more, combining all three toppings is not a crime either.
A little note for expectation management: Having seen the images of all those vibrant colors in one bowl, this will obviously be exactly what you expect to get as well. Now, depending on the ingredients that are used, the look of the sweet dessert may vary. In places that use fresh fruits and legumes the colors are usually less bright than their more artificial counterparts from fast food outlets. But don’t be disappointed. Sure, it is the pretty looks that got us excited at first but it is the luscious flavor that counts in the end. And what those less vivid components may lack in appearance, they certainly make up for in taste! For the rest, there is always a suitable Instagram filter.
More Than Just A Random Mishmash
Yes it is true. Considering what makes it into the popular Filipino dessert, it almost seems like somebody just took whatever they could find in their pantry. And to be fair, there is no one single recipe or proper way of preparing a real Halo-Halo. There are more simple versions with just the base ingredients as well as there are fancy bowls that truly contain every single shade of the rainbow. Each place or family has their own favorite recipe – if it can even be called a recipe.
Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: the composition of the sweet treat is not arbitrary. After all, each topping plays a crucial role in completing the arrangement. And while the ingredients vary greatly, base flavors and textures are thoroughly coordinated to work in perfect unison. The mealy beans, chewy gelatin, tender coconut, crunchy pounded rice, cool shaved ice, creamy condensed milk and ube ice cream and wobbly jelly and leche flan – all of these together create a potpourri of sensations. Each spoon is different and will take you on a new gustatory adventure. You will be surprised and delighted with every bite until you have finished it all.
A Truly Multicultural Dessert
Today’s multi-facetted Halo-Halo initially stems from a much more simple dessert. The popular Filipino sweet is actually believed to derive from Japanese Kakigōri. Pre-war migrants from Japan allegedly brought the traditional dessert with them to the Philippines. At first, locals only added cooked red beans or mung beans, sugar and milk to the plain base of shaved ice. This simple predecessor was commonly known as “Mong-Ya”.
Though, it wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of ice. For a long time, this wasn’t a given in the tropical country. Americans were the first to bring ice to the Philippines by boat in the 1920s and shortly after built the very first ice plant in the country. Benefitting from the proximity to the so-called Insular Ice Plant, witty Japanese settlers in Manila’s Quinta Market started selling the pre-mature version of Halo-Halo to the willing crowds who welcomed the novelty with open arms. A win-win situation for Filipinos being able to enjoy the delicious refreshment and the Japanese making a living in their new home. Thus, more and more places popped up in Metro Manila eventually, spreading the popularity of the shaved ice dessert first within the city and then across the entire country.
Over time, more of the aforementioned native Filipino ingredients found their way into the sweet chaos. Finally, the addition of Spanish leche flan completed Halo-Halo and made it a true representation of the Philippines’ cultural and colonial heritage. A juxtaposition of Filipino, American, Japanese and Spanish influences.
How To Make Halo-Halo At Home
Making Halo-Halo at home is absolutely no rocket science. Basically, all there is to do is layer the wild range of components. That is at least the case if you mainly use ready-made ingredients from cans and glasses. And this is not a shame at all. Except for dedicated places that specialize in the sugary treat and pride themselves on using homemade sweets, even Filipinos often resort to the canned versions as well.
The biggest challenge for all of you who are not living in a place with a big Filipino population lies in the availability of those native ingredients. Things like Nata de Coco or Pinipig might be a bit tricky to find. But if you are lucky, your local Asian supermarket may carry those specialties. If not, there is still the possibility to get them online. For your convenience, we have scoured Amazon for some good options which you can find below.
Here’s All You Need
The good news is that you can easily vary and leave things out or add additional stuff to your liking. Don’t worry if you cannot get your hands on all the ingredients. Though, try to replicate the wide variety of flavors and consistencies that make this dessert so special. To give you a bit of guidance on what goes into the original version, you can find our authentic Halo-Halo recipe below.
Another “issue” with that huge range of components is that it hardly makes sense to prepare just one or two servings at a time. One will just end up with loads of opened cans and glasses that will go bad in the fridge. So if you want to go all in on the variety of ingredients, you are probably well off to prepare Halo-Halo for a birthday party or when you have guests over so that you can use up most of the things at once.
So what to do when you are craving the heavenly dessert when you are all by yourself? Don’t despair! Gladly, we have found a pre-made Halo-Halo mix. While it may not contain the full range of ingredients, the convenience certainly justifies the compromise that definitely gets you that desired sugar rush, nonetheless.
One final thing to keep in mind is that it is important to use shaved ice instead of crushed ice or cubes. The finely shaved flakes mix more easily with the other ingredients and perfectly soak up the evaporated milk.
Now for everybody who doesn’t live in the tropics, classic Halo-Halo will be rather a summertime exclusive. But fear not that you have to forgo this delicious treat in winter. A great variation from the Visayas Islands is here to bridge the cold winter months. So-called “Binignit” contains mostly the same ingredients as Halo-Halo but is served hot in coconut milk. You may also find it under the name “Ginataan” – short for “Ginataang Halo-Halo” which describes basically what is made of.
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Patbingsu from Korea
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