How do you respond if someone greets you with the words “Halo-halo”? In most places, you’d just say “Hi”. But if you happen to be in the Philippines and are fussy about your dessert, you might want to reply with, “Umm…no purple sludge, please. And maybe no corn and cheese…and I don’t know about the chickpeas and sweet potato…”
Halo-halo—or mix mix—is a popular street food in the Philippines. It’s made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, coconut jelly, jelly beans and an unpredictable combination of fruits and vegetables piled into a glass. The first time I encountered it was in the queue for the Philippines visa. “You must try halo-halo,” a young man enthused. He was teaching business management at a university outside Manila and was delighted to play the part of savvy insider. “Have a big bowl, tell them to put everything. It’s an experience.”
Which is why, the moment I spotted the halo-halo counter at the buffet of The Oriental Legazpi, I marched towards it (stoically ignoring the siren call of the chocolate cakes and tiny mango cheesecakes). The girl at the counter picked up a large glass bowl and gave me an enquiring look. “Put everything,” I said nonchalantly. And then wished I hadn’t. Not all the ingredients looked dessert-friendly. The green jelly beans, red jelly, milky coconut jelly and the various chopped fruit were fine. But I wasn’t convinced about the nameless purple-black paste. Or the boiled corn and grated cheese. Too late.
The girl was a purple-paste-and-boiled-corn aficionado. She heaped them onto a base of technicoloured jellies. Then she topped the entire concoction with shaved ice and a generous glug of evaporated milk. My halo-halo was ready to go. I returned to the table and stirred the ingredients while the others look on with startled fascination. “Corn?” they asked. “Grated cheese? And what’s that smushy stuff?” It turned out to be purple yam. Good I didn’t know that then.
I took a spoonful, feeling like an insect under a microscope. To my utter relief, the halo-halo was not bad. “Quite nice,” I promised the others. “Like falooda gone rogue.” My sales pitch flopped. The others fetched mini-mousses and looked smug while I tackled my bowl of melting halo-halo.
Ten minutes later, I’d reached a bunch of conclusions. That I’m not a purple-paste person. Corn and grated cheese add interesting texture to desserts. And that, maybe, I had cracked the riddle of Filipino food.
Ever since we’d landed in the Philippines on a press trip, I’d been sampling local specialities. The little sticky-rice cakes on offer at airport lounges. The hearty rice-based breakfasts. The platters of rather plain fried seafood. And the chilli-infused vinegars that added pizzazz to every meal.
I’d also quizzed the chefs we encountered about Filipino cuisine. Why—unlike the well-travelled dishes of neighbouring countries—was this food relatively unknown? What lay at the heart of this cuisine? “Filipino food uses few spices,” explained Kiran Kumar Singh, the Indian chef at The Manila Hotel. “It plays with sweet and sour flavours and uses a lot of coconut and fish.”
“It is simple and adaptable,” added Chef Marlon at the Nurture Wellness Village near Tagaytay. “If you substitute butter and lemon in an adobo, you get a French dish. If you add lemon grass to sinigang soup, you get a Thai tom yum. In the Philippines we are good at adding twists to traditional dishes.”
It made perfect sense that coconut and fish were essential ingredients in an island country. Just as it was natural that, in a land that had been colonised by four different powers over 400 years, the cuisine had absorbed foreign flavours.
As I examined the bowl of halo-halo—with its overtones of Indian falooda, the shaved-ice desserts of Japan and the jelly-based ones of Indonesia—something clicked. Filipino food had borrowed dishes and techniques from other world cuisines over the centuries, and then added a local flourish. Little wonder, then, that Pinoy cuisine is often referred to as the first great fusion experiment.
Over the next few days, I became an expert at identifying the local twist. I was not a fan of jackfruit flan. Or coconut pie. Or kwek kwek—which despite the playful name was stodgy, boiled-egg fritters. I wasn’t brave enough to sample balut—a street food popularly believed to have aphrodisiac properties (chicken or duck eggs are incubated till an embryo develops, and then boiled). But I enjoyed champorado—a sweet breakfast porridge flavoured with cocoa that’s eaten alongside salty, dried fish. Itlog na pula—duck’s eggs submerged in brine or salty clay for about three weeks, and then boiled in pink water. The caramelised banana chips. And, of course, the marvellous, caramelised, pili nuts. Most of all, I adored sili ice cream in Legazpi.
Unlike the rest of the Philippines, the Bicol region is proud of its tempestuous volcano and fiery dishes. “Chilli and coconut is a marriage made in heaven,” explained Maria Ravanilla, former director of tourism. “They are the basis of our spicy Bicol Express dishes.”
Little wonder, then, that the 1st Colonial Grill in Legazpi used coconut milk and chilli to come up with its bestseller. The small eatery serves traditional dishes like honey-glazed squid and blackened ribs. But it’s the chilli ice cream that keeps the crowds coming. Newcomers are counselled to start with Level 1 and slowly work their way up the spice ladder. Those who order Level 4 chilli ice cream are heroes. The bright red dessert arrives alongside a small glass of soothing milk and a board that proclaims ‘Certified Oragon’ and ‘Volcano Level’.
“An oragon is someone who is brave and unafraid,” explained Rowena Aspe, who has helped develop some unique ice cream flavours, including sweet potato, cucumber and roasted rice. “Our ice cream was used as a challenge on the Amazing Race. Please try some Level 4 ice cream.” We weren’t sure whether we were up to Amazing Race standards, but we needn’t have worried. The ice cream was stunning. The first impression was sweet and creamy after which came a simmering, volcanic heat.
Funky desserts apart, breakfast was my favourite meal in the Philippines. Decades ago, a cookbook introduced me to a quick fix described as ‘Filipino Breakfast’. This consisted of garlicky rice topped with sea salt, two fried eggs and generous splashes of chilli-vinegar. My husband and I promptly converted this Manila breakfast into a Mumbai dinner.
For years I wondered whether the Filipinos actually breakfasted on this hearty dish. After reaching the Philippines, though, I realised that mine was the skinny version. The real deal involves additional servings of crunchy dried fish. Or juicy slices of indulgent, Spanish-style lechon—roasted pig served with a sugar-vinegar sauce. Or chicken adobo—a variation on the Mexican comfort food (here made with a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic that gives it a Chinese punch). If that was breakfast, I wondered, what was left for the rest of the day.
Well, maybe a platter of crispy pata (deep-fried pork leg). Or kare-kare, an oxtail stew cooked with peanut sauce with distinct Indian and Indonesian overtones. Or calderata, a beef stew cooked with pineapple and veggies—and subtle Spanish flavours. Or a fried chicken meal at Jollibees—the wildly popular American-style fast food chain. Followed by a pie that looks like it should be apple but is probably filled with tender coconut. In short, the world on a plate—served Filipino style.