Shaved ice. Candied red and garbanzo beans. U click here be (purple yam). Fruit preserves. Flan. Kaong (coconut jelly). Gulaman (gelatin). Condensed milk. A combination that may not make any sense to the untrained palate, but known to many Filipinos as their beloved halo-halo (mix-mix) dessert. As a kid in California, I’d watch my parents heap the ingredients into a bowl and enjoy it as a special summer snack. Sometimes it was too sweet for me, but as I traveled to Asia as an adult and became accustomed to the Southeast Asian palate of enjoying all things salty and sweet – halo-halo makes perfect sense. The icy snack is a welcome respite from the 90-degree heat and 100% humidity. Moreover, halo-halo at different restaurants is varied – you’ll never find one exactly like the other.
According to the Philippine Inquirer (2012), halo-halo has Japanese roots. Prior to World War II, Japanese farmers brought their technique of preserving beans such as garbanzo, kidney bean and mongo in sweet syrup and serving it over shaved ice similar to their native kakigori. They served it with ice cream and tropical fruit. The dessert remained immensely popular even after the Japanese evacuated the Philippines after World War II. Ice was introduced to the Philippines by Americans. If you deconstruct halo-halo now, you will see it is a representation of the Philippines’ Japanese, Spanish (with the flan), and American influences.
Visiting the Philippines or any Filipino enclave in the US, you are bound to find halo-halo for sale and trying it is a must. Halo-halo can be enjoyed at the fanciest 5-star properties to simple roadside stands or restaurants throughout the country. Here are a few places in the Philippines well-known for their take on halo-halo.
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Manila is the first place most people land when traveling to the Philippines before they hit the beaches on the outer islands. If you are staying in the Makati area – try the Milky Way Café on Pasay (Arnaiz) Road. The original Milky Way dates back to the 1950s when it was an ice cream parlor in Manila city proper. Its modern Makati incarnation has maintained Milky Ways’ reputation for simple, good homecooked Filipino food and homemade desserts and ice cream.
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The Original Razon’s is in my dad’s home province of Pampanga, just two hours north of Manila. Razon’s started off as a simple halo-halo stand in front of the Razon family home and eventually became so popular that they decided to franchise. Compared to other places – their halo-halo recipe is quite simple, and the key is in quality ingredients. Their no-frills halo-halo combo is macapuno, sweet plantain, and ice, topped with flan and sweetened condensed milk. Look for the red Razon’s logo to ensure you are enjoying the true Razon’s halo-halo. Apparently, there are copycats using the Razon’s name.
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Yes, it’s a fast food chain that you see at every mall in the Philippines, but don’t let that deter you from giving their halo-halo a shot. Theirs is a classic “kitchen sink” style halo-halo where you have every ingredient imaginable. When you need a break from souvenir shopping at the malls, check out the halo-halo at Chowking.
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When I am in my mom’s hometown of General Santos City on the Philippines’ southernmost island of Mindanao, a stop along the road at Apareja Buko Halo-Halo is a must. It’s a bit of a trek outside of General Santos City proper, but the simple roadside eatery serves some of the best halo-halo I’ve ever had – inside a coconut. Unlike Razon’s simpler version, Apareja has more ingredients – this time adding Ube ice cream instead of the yam pudding. It’s cold, crunchy and sweet with the added bonus of being able to eat the coconut when you finish the halo-halo.
These are just a few places famous for their halo-halo, but don’t be afraid to try other spots not on this list. You can find it all over the country and won’t have to look too hard.
After visiting the Philippines, you might find yourself craving halo-halo back home. One option is to head to the nearest Asian grocery for ingredients and make it yourself. The second option is to check out local Filipino restaurants in your area. Filipino food is experiencing its emergence on the Western food scene much like Thai and Vietnamese back in the day. It’s a lot easier to find Filipino food and ingredients nowadays. If all else fails, you could always go back to the Philippines for your halo-halo fix.