Because of how it's made, halo-halo is named after the Filipino word for "mix-mix." But is halo-halo really a Filipino treat? How did this iconic dessert come to be? And why is it so popular within and outside the Philippines? Answers to those questions (and more) are below.
The American-Japanese Origins of Halo-Halo
In his column "Looking Back," historian Ambeth Ocampo writes that the origins of halo-halo can be traced as far back as the mid-1800s. At the time, Filipinos didn't have access to ice (owing to the Philippines' tropical weather), until the Americans brought Wenham Lake Ice to the country.
Fast forward a century later, the Japanese occupied the Philippines, bringing with them a technique for preserving beans using thick, sweet syrup. These beans can be poured over shaved ice, and served as a dessert known as kakigori. (Today, many restaurants in Manila still serve kakigori, such as Ikigai Kakigori Café, Ery Curry, Hana, and Marufuku.)
Needless to say, kakigori became a hit in the Philippines. Japanese immigrants-turned-proprietors put up small stands that sold mongo-ya (red beans topped with ground ice, sugar, and milk). Usually, the mongo-ya were also topped with ice cream, penny candies, and fruits like papaya. Many of the mongo-ya stalls were so successful, they eventually expanded into bazaars.
However, the bazaars disappeared as quickly as they came, since the Japanese army was defeated and Japanese immigrants in the Philippines were forced to return to their home country. Still, because the Americans introduced ice, and the Japanese introduced kakigori, Pinoys soon learned to make their own shaved ice dessert.
Halo-Halo Counterparts Around the World
To be sure, shaved ice desserts aren't unique to the Philippines, or even Japan. South Korea has the patbingsu or bingsu, which uses less ingredients and finer ice than halo-halo does. (Incidentally, there are also many bingsu cafés in Manila.) Likewise, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore have the ais kacang and cendol; Indonesia has the es campur and es teler; Italy has the granita and grattachecca; China has the baobing and ching bo leung, and the Indian subcontinent has the falooda.
Lucky for novelty seekers, there's more than one type of halo-halo. Since halo-halo uses a variety of ingredients, it only makes sense for it to have a lot of varieties as well.
One of the best-known variants is by Razon's of Guagua. Their version uses only four ingredients (sweetened saba bananas, leche flan, macapuno, and lots of shaved ice), but it's just as tasty as the traditional version. You can also order one of their Kapampangan dishes to complement your halo-halo.
Other halo-halo variants are based on what ingredients are included (or not included) in the halo-halo. For example, restaurants usually offer "special" and "regular" versions — meaning that one has an ice cream scoop, and the other doesn't, respectively. Halo-halo may also be served in special containers, such as tall glasses and large bowls.
Where Is the "Best" Halo-Halo in the Philippines?
That's a little tricky to answer. If you ask two different Filipinos about the best halo-halo in the Philippines, chances are they'll give you two different answers. A resident from Tiwi, Albay may say that Manila's halo-halo doesn't hold a candle to theirs, while a Manileño may say the exact opposite.
Therefore, the key to finding your best halo-halo is to ask yourself: Do you agree that "the more ingredients, the better," or do you subscribe to the idea that "less is more"? How sweet do you want your halo-halo to be, if you like it sweet at all? If you find a halo-halo that checks off all your criteria, maybe that's the "best" available!
Why Is Halo-Halo so Popular?
Aside from being a great summer dessert, halo-halo is popular for many other reasons.
- It's easy to make. As long as you have an ice shaver, evaporated milk, and assorted fruits that go well together, you can make your own halo-halo at home.
- It's a classic treat. Does anyone ever get tired of eating halo-halo? We doubt it. Considering how many halo-halo varieties you can make, it's easy to surprise people with this particular dessert.
- It's tasty. Need we say more?
How to Eat Halo-Halo
Halo-halo might seem like an intimidating mass of ice and sweets, but it's actually pretty easy to eat! All you have to do is use your spoon to dunk the toppings to the bottom, mix the ingredients along the way, and presto! You can enjoy halo-halo as it's meant to be enjoyed.
No matter how tastes change, some things always remain the same. As long as people need to beat the summer heat, and they want a tasty way to do it, halo-halo will be the Philippines' unofficial summer dessert for years to come.
How do you like your halo-halo? Why do you like it? Give us a shout-out in the comments, or give us a nudge via social media!