The halo-halo has been so much a part of the local food scene today, that we tend to think that it must’ve always been there. But if you think about it, how could we have halo-halo during the Spanish colonial period when there were no refrigerators? There were no ice plants back then, as the Spaniards didn’t believe in having drinks with ice, due to their belief that drinking ice would shorten one’s life. How did they cool their drinks back then? They used saltpeter (made from bat dung), an ingredient for gun powder.
This didn’t mean that there was no ice in the Philippines during this era. During the 1800s, ice was imported to the Philippines from the U.S. They were harvested from frozen ponds and lakes during winter, such as Wenham Lake in the state of Massachusetts, shipped to places as far as India, China, Australia, and the Philippines. According to food writer and author, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, the ice blocks were sold not in grocery stores, but from hardware stores They were used primarily to make ice cream or to keep a wooden ice box (the precursor of the modern refrigerator) chilled. But ice was so expensive back then it was considered a luxury rather than a necessity.
When the Americans came in 1898, the tropical heat quickly made them realize the necessity of ice. In 1899, ice cream became more publicly available with the opening of the country’s first ice cream parlor, Clarke in Escolta. Then they opened the first ice plant in the country in 1910. Soon Filipinos’ attitude toward ice began changing as chilled drinks were becoming more and more common. But when the Japanese began arriving in the country in the 1920s and opened refreshment parlors, the Filipino attitude toward iced treats really began changing.
According to associate professorial lecturer at University of Santo Tomas, Augusto de Viana, the Japanese-operated parlors had a secret weapon: ice shavers. By reducing the ice to powder form, it made it easier to eat. The Japanese would then add flavorings such as syrups, red beans, fruits and jelly to the shaved ice. In their homeland, these iced treats come under a variety of names such as the mitsuname or the kakigori.
Here in the Philippines they began offering a simple dish of shaved ice and red beans that they simply called mongo con hielo. It was so cheap and affordable that even if you ordered it with a jigger of evaporated milk it would only cost one centavo in the years before World War 2. When it became popular, other parlor owners raised the stakes by introducing a variation using corn instead of beans resulting in another popular treat called mais con hielo. And it escalated further, as all kinds of native ingredients including sweetened saba, langka, macapuno and nata de coco were added resulting in the treat we know as halo-halo today.
But the Japanese brought the concept of a shaved ice treat not only to the Philippines. You can find quite a number of variations across North and South-East Asia. Koreans have patbingsu, while the Chinese refer to it as baobing. In Singapore and Malaysia it’s called ice kacang, but if you cross the border to Thailand it’s dubbed as the ruanmit. You can also order it in Indonesia as es campur. But despite these regional names, the halo-halo still manages to remain quite unique. The reason: its blend of local ingredients such as pinipig, ube ice cream, carabao milk and leche flan. In fact the late food writer and researcher Doreen Fernandez says that it doesn’t matter whether a dish was first created here in the Philippines or not, but rather the process that it undergoes to make it accessible to Filipinos.
In recent years, the halo-halo has been getting notices from the foreign press. In 2006, Time Magazine named the halo-halo as one of the best ways to get legally high in Asia. It. Overseas Filipino communities are doing their part to promote the halo-halo. The Los Angeles branch of Jollibee for example has included it in their lineup of fast-food offerings. It was recently featured by author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who dubbed it as “oddly beautiful.” Not only that, but some overseas Filipinos are contributing to the development of the halo-halo by tweaking the recipe. For example Fil-Am Chef Dale Talde’s halo-halo adds his American heritage with a sprinkling of American breakfast cereal, Cap’n Crunch.
Image from epicurious.com
But in reinterpreting the halo-halo for a foreign audience, the recipe seems to have gotten lost in translation. The reason being that the mix of ingredients that make-up a halo-halo seems so odd to non-Filipino chefs that they began to add all kind of ingredients to it. In 2016 at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, Chef Isa Fabros came up with a version that included the energy drink Red Bull, soft tofu, and a dash of the breakfast cereal, Fruity Pebbles. In that same year, American food magazine, Bon Appetit, included blueberries, mashed banana, brown sugar, and gummy bears to its recipe (photo above). As expected, Filipino netizens were up in arms. But it did prompt numerous discussions as to what constitutes a proper halo-halo. One of the latest trends reduces the halo-halo down to few ingredients, starting when the Pampanga based restaurant, Razon’s, began opening branches across the country. Their version consisted only of shaved ice, macapuno, saba, milk and leche flan. Its simplicity won the hearts of many Pinoy diners and a number of imitators.
If we stop and consider how the halo-halo came to be, we will realize that it mirrors how the Filipino national identity was developed. The Chinese brought in the red mung beans through their mooncakes and hopia, while the Spaniards shared with us their milk and leche flan recipe. The Americans then came and helped make crushed ice possible. After which the Japanese taught us how to mix all these ingredients together. As time went on, we began to localize it further by adding local ingredients such as saba, macapuno, ube and nata de coco. The result is a treat that is uniquely Filipino. Writer Gilda Cordero Fernandez perfectly sums it up this way: “Our culture is not based on contradiction but on integration. We have the ability to gather all those multi layers of halo-halo and create a great mix out of them.”