Halo-halo, mix-mix and dreaming of summer


Even though, right now, in Chicago, we're complaining about the flooding rains, the auto-eating potholes, the snow and the slow, agonizing prelude to summer, in a few months, many of my compatriots will beg for mercy from the unrelenting muggyness. The swamp will again live up to its name. I caught a glimmer of summer on a preview of Anthony Bourdain's second episode of Parts Unknown on CNN (Sundays at 9 PM EST). In a well-cut teaser of Tony's LA Koreatown episode showing tonight, what flashed before my eyes was a glistening plastic Jollibee cup of HALO-HALO.... and it looked a little like this ('cept this one's from Chow King):

Halo-halo from Chow King, Philippines.

First, an introduction to halo-halo. Its name literally translates in English to "mix mix," which is the way one's supposed to eat the icy and sweet layered treat: with a spoon or straw, mix the shaved ice, tapioca, slices of leche flan, pounded toasted rice for a good crunch (pinipig), jello cubes, ice cream like ube (purple yam), evaporated milk, beans, sliced fruits like banana, jackfruit, young coconut meat in strips. It's damn near the kitchen sink of delicious things you can find in the PI.

This is the stuff I grew up with. I remember visiting my godmother's condo with my mom circa early 1990s. Summer would bring out the beloved plastic shave ice appliance. Its base was a C-shape that would fit around any medium size bowl. A small ice compartment above the bowl held six to eight ice cubes. The ice cubes funneled down to a shaver, which I powered by turning the knob clockwise. I loved that scraping noise the blade against the ice made and the slight resistance as I grated the ice into snow... Chhh, chhh, chhh! If the shave ice machine was sitting on my godmother's kitchen counter when we arrived, I got giddy knowing she'd gone out and bought all the fixins at the Asian grocery store and soon we'd have halo-halo.

In recent years, I've learned about iced desserts from other Asian countries: Taiwan, China, Japan and Indonesia, to name a few. This last-mentioned version I tried recently at the University of Chicago Indonesian students' food fair. It's called Es Cendol, an iced drink (sometimes it's shaved ice, I understand) with a coconut milk base, brown sugar syrup and rice jelly formed in bean or squiggly shapes flavored with pandan, a leaf used to flavor many kinds of Indonesian desserts and its pastel green hue akin to pistachio. Historians disagree on the genesis of the various Asian iced desserts in this 2005 New York Times piece. Back to halo halo.

Razon's halo-halo, Manila.

Here's my favorite halo halo, wonderful in its simplicity from Razon's, a Pampangan restaurant chain. Their version very finely shaves the ice to order, keeping it soft like snow so the ice doesn't resolidify to an ice ball that you have to fish out of your cup halfway through the dessert course. It makes all the difference to me. Other ingredients: leche flan, condensed milk, brown sugar syrup, banana. That's it.