3 Takes on Halo-Halo, the Traditional Filipino Dessert That's Popping up in NYC
New Orleans has the sno-ball, Italy's got the granita, and the shaved-ice dessert of Colombia? That would be the cholado. In the Philippines, the sweet treat goes by the name of halo-halo, the Tagalog word for "mix mix." And with Filipino food having a moment in New York (three such restaurants have opened here in the last two years)—not to mention the stifling 90-degree weather—now was a perfect time to dig in.
Halo-halo is traditionally served in layers in a cup or bowl: First comes a hodgepodge of ingredients that can range from red beans and cocoa to fresh fruit, followed by a healthy scoop of shaved ice. This is all topped with evaporated milk, leche flan, ube (purple yam) ice cream, caramelized plantains, and strands of macapuno (coconut). According to Leah Cohen, Top Chef contestant and Jewish-Filipino chef/owner of Pig & Khao, a new spot on the Lower East Side, the idea is to mix everything together and eat it like a sundae.
But a heavy, fudge-laden ice cream sundae it is not. The relatively light toppings make the dessert incredibly refreshing—which is exactly the point, since, as Dale Talde puts it, "it's hot as hell in the Philippines." While it's hard to pinpoint the exact origins of halo-halo, Talde, the owner of the Filipino-inspired Brooklyn restaurant Talde (and another Top Chef contestant), also contributes the creation of halo-halo to the country's lack of dairy. Meanwhile, Nicole Ponseca, who co-owns the Filipino gastropub Jeepney in the East Village, says the original shaved ice dessert concept came from Japan, in the form of kakigori (typically milk, ice, and sweetened beans). Leaving history aside, perhaps Anthony Bourdain said it best. After trying halo-halo on an episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown in Los Angeles, he called it "oddly beautiful," continuing, "it makes no goddamn sense at all."
Talde—who serves a version with melon-flavored bubble tea pearls and Cap'n Crunch—echoes that sentiment, in reference to the one he created: "I'm not sure why people order it. If I heard the description, I would think it wouldn't taste good at all. It's definitely not for everybody." I, for one, happen to love it. There's nothing sophisticated about his presentation, which comes unceremoniously heaped in a large silver bowl. However, it's clear that thought has been put into the blend of ingredients, and right now that also includes a lot of fresh fruit, which Talde buys from the nearby farmers' market. The last bowl I had was filled with blueberries, strawberries, large chunks of mango, and small bits of pineapple. The neon orange cereal is a whimsical touch, and adds a necessary, well, crunch (although I happen to like when it gets soggy).
The halo-halo at Pig & Khao was inspired by the one at Razon's, a chain in the Philippines that Cohen loved as a child. It's a bit more refined, served in a dainty porcelain bowl, with squares of rich and silky leche flan, coconut strips, and dense caramelized plantains plated just so. The ube ice cream is sprinkled with crushed pinipig (toasted sweet rice) and adds a vibrant pop of color on top (and to the milk, as it melts). What it lacks is that bottom layer of extra goodies (fruit, red beans, etc.), but that didn't stop me from sharing not one, but two orders at my last meal there.
Jeepney, which opened last year down the street from sister restaurant Maharlika, serves the most traditional one of the bunch. There's a rainbow-colored jumble of chewy ingredients: purple yam jam, kaong (sugar palm fruit), langka (jackfruit), red beans, cubes of coconut gel, and pieces of lychee, all imported from the Philippines. (The extra-long spoons they provide are ideal for digging them out.) The ice here is more crushed than shaved, and instead of evaporated milk, they use a mix of coconut milk, organic whole milk, and a touch of evaporated milk, which explains why it's a little soupier than the others. "Traditionally, it was made with carabao milk and coconut water—natural forms of cream and sweetness," Ponseca says. "Modern convention introduced condensed or evaporated milk, but we wanted to honor the historic ingredients." However, in a nod towards modern times, the pinipig on top of the ice cream has been replaced with Rice Krispies.
But whether traditional or modern, the best part about halo-halo across the board? It's one of those desserts that you can never be too full to order—even if you say you are.
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