How To Make Halo-Halo, the Filipino Dessert That Cools Off Sweltering Summer Days

A signature dessert of the Philippines, halo-halo features layers of condensed milk, shaved ice, sweetened beans, fruit, and much more. Read on to learn how to put this refreshing treat together.

For curious foodies who want to mix up their usual summertime dessert rotation, exploring the cuisines of countries with warm year-round climates is an excellent way to find delicious treats specifically designed for maximum refreshment. One such cuisine can be found in the island nation of the Philippines, where indigenous ingredients and techniques blend with international influences to create one-of-a-kind dishes. This is where you'll find halo-halo, a remarkable dessert with bold flavors and varied textures that's an ideal pick for sweltering summer days and nights.

What is halo-halo?

"Halo-halo," a term that literally translates to "mix-mix," refers to a semi-frozen Filipino dessert that's often compared to a parfait, due to the fact that both treats are presented in layers and are intended to be mixed and integrated. Halo-halo can (and, some fans argue, should) be customized to suit the tastes of those who will enjoy it, but a traditional halo-halo recipe typically includes the following:

  • Shaved ice: A crucial ingredient for both its cold temperature and its crunchy texture.
  • Evaporated milk: This ingredient adds both sweetness and a rich, creamy consistency.
  • Plantains (or bananas): Halo-halo often includes saba plantains cooked in sugar syrup to both soften and sweeten them.
  • Ube (or yams): A layer of cubed purple yams is common in halo-halo, and some versions also include ube jam and a scoop of ube ice cream on top.
  • Beans: This ingredient might surprise those who aren't used to halo-halo, but sweetened beans (either red beans or mung beans) lend a welcome chewy texture.
  • Coconut: Some recipes utilize shaved coconut, others contain coconut gelatin, but most feature some coconut element.
  • Sugar palm fruit and/or jackfruit: These fruits grow abundantly throughout the Philippines, so it stands to reason that they constitute a layer of halo-halo.
  • Flan: Not all versions of halo-halo use flan as an ingredient, but some include both this custardy dessert and a scoop of ube ice cream as toppings.
halo-halo filipino dessert
sergio amiti/getty images

What makes halo-halo a must-try dessert?

  • Its blend of flavors and textures is truly unique (and customizable).

While certain ingredients are closely associated with halo-halo, its appeal largely rests in its flexibility. Operators Fernando & Jessie Dizon of the Manila Street food truck in Charlottesville, Virginia tell us that "there are so many different variations when it comes to this wonderful summer treat. Halo-halo is a mix of delightful ingredients that you might not normally see together in one dish. Sweetened red beans, sweetened white beans, sweetened coconut strings, lychee, sweet plantains, gelatin, jackfruit, and tapioca pearls — the options are endless!"

  • If you want a refreshing treat, then halo-halo has you covered.

It's difficult to think of a dessert more deliberately crafted to beat the heat than halo-halo. Chef Tara Monsod of Animae in San Diego, California says that "halo-halo takes me back to summers with my family. I love when the ube ice cream melts into the halo-halo; it's like a milkshake on steroids. Halo-halo is a unique dessert with different textures, so each bite is different. Where else can you find a dessert that's silky, grainy, creamy, icy, and chewy?"

  • It's both globally-influenced and distinctly Filipino.

Halo-halo's development reflects the history of the Philippines throughout the 20th century. According to Gastro Obscura, shaved ice became popular in the region after American settlers opened an ice plant in Manila in 1902. Also, the use of sweetened beans was a nod to Japanese presence in the Philippines, and the popular choice to top halo-halo with flan speaks to the influence of Spanish colonists on the local cuisine.

To make delicious halo-halo at home, follow these tips:

  • Don't feel limited to any particular ingredient ratio.

If you consult a published halo-halo recipe, you'll find specific measurements and quantities for this dessert's many ingredients. However, Monsod urges you to feel free to play around and figure out which amounts work best for you. "Everyone has their own version of halo-halo with different ingredient ratios. Try it all together to see what you like and adjust the ingredients to your liking!" she insists.

  • Try serving it in a large bowl rather than in individual glasses.

The traditional service style for halo-halo involves layering the different ingredients in individual dishes or cups. However, if you're serving a group, chef-owner Diana Manalang of Little Chef Little Cafe in New York City encourages you to "build it in a big bowl! That way, you can scoop everything without spilling it." A large spoon or scooper will allow you to easily portion your halo-halo and to share it with friends.

Try this halo-halo recipe:

A slightly-more-elaborate variation on typical halo-halo, halo-halo especial features both a slice of flan and a scoop of ice cream as toppings. Recipe writer lola suggests vanilla ice cream, but if you have access to ube ice cream (Trader Joe's often sells this product), then we recommend that flavor for a more authentic halo-halo experience.

Check out our collection of Filipino Cuisine.


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