Halo-Halo, the Remix

History can be preserved in ice.

By Dulce Zamora

Does a frozen treat by any other name taste as sweet? It depends. When I looked up the origins of icy confections around the world, I found myself not only salivating over the delicious selections, but also uncovering some of the bittersweet stories behind them.

Take the halo halo, which literally translates to “mix-mix” in Tagalog. It’s a combination of crushed water crystals with a heap of colorful toppings. My family and I recently made this as a surprise treat for my daughter’s 11th birthday. She enjoyed the DIY aspect of the dessert so much that she said, “Let’s have this every year!”

“No problem,” I said. But that was before I looked up the humble beginnings of the halo-halo. The food research led me down a rabbit hole that included tales of conquest and resilience.

Two big events led to the halo-halo’s creation:

  1. The United States built the Insular Ice Plant in Manila in 1902, during American rule of the Philippines. The plant was built to provide cool refreshment for U.S. troops in the tropical region.
  2. Beginning in the 1920s, the Japanese began migrating to the Philippines to work in farms or road construction. While there, they introduced the kakigori, a frosty dessert with sweet syrup and preserved beans such as mongo, garbanzos, and kidney beans.

Filipinxs took to the kakigori and added their own garnish, including tropical fruits and local snacks. (See our halo-halo ingredients below.) One common element is leche flan, a caramel custard made out of milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla. The confection is a version of the European creme caramel, which made its way to the Philippines during Spanish colonization of the islands.

Here’s where I fell down deeper into the historical rabbit hole: While I was reading about Philippine history, I stumbled upon an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal detailing the events that led to the three-year Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and to the aggression leading up to in World War II.

The Western imperialist impact on Japan set in motion a series of events: the rise of Japanese nationalism, of Japanese economic and military power, of Japan’s quest for empire, of Japanese emigration to America and elsewhere, and of the Western reaction to all of these things, that led almost a century later to Pearl Harbor. 

Japan, the United States, and the Road to World War II in the Pacific by Richard J. Smethurst, Asian-Pacific Journal,
September 9, 2012
https://apjjf.org/2012/10/37/Richard-J.-Smethurst/3825/article.html

In the years leading up to World War II, many in Japan resented longstanding American and British control of its trade, military, and other affairs in the region. The economic situation led to a lot of Japanese migration to different countries, including the Philippines and the U.S. The States also enacted anti-Japanese immigration laws, which further strained relations between the two countries.

As a student in California, I only remember learning about the great battle between the Allied powers (U.S., U.K., France, etc.) and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.), with textbooks portraying the Allies as the good guys and the Axis as the bad guys. Yes, the Axis countries did many terrible things, and their behavior during World War II was inexcusable. However, I never knew (or don’t remember) that Imperialist Japan grew out of resentment of Western control of its affairs.

See what I mean about going down a rabbit hole of history?

If we were to get poetic about it, we could say that the halo-halo’s motley of colors, shapes, and flavors distill reaction to centuries of foreign rule. I mean, the confection is sweet and refreshes in the heat, even though it was cultivated under bitter circumstances.

Eventually, the Philippines did gain independence after years of foreign rule. Spain colonized the country for 333 years, the U.S. controlled it for 48 years, and Japan occupied it for three years (1942-1945) during World War II. It wasn’t until July 4, 1946 that the U.S. officially recognized Philippine sovereignty, and Filipinxs could govern themselves. That’s 384 years of the world telling you that you are not capable of managing yourself.

I flinched at the thought. I had to take a break from writing this blog post. Actually, it took me weeks to process this. As a Filipina-American woman, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, it upset me that centuries of foreign indoctrination had ripped away at Philippine identity. It set the stage for Filipinxs to leave the motherland, and to be flexible enough to live and work all over the world, yours included. On the other hand, I didn’t want to fall into pure victimhood, to say that the world wronged you, and that’s why you’re all messed up. There has to be a middle ground, and that’s what I’m trying to navigate.

I’ve come to realize that this issue will require more than one simple blog post. I’m inspired to further educate myself by reading more about history, making sure to explore different perspectives. Meanwhile, I leave you with my family’s halo-halo, which we put together with an ingredient not always seen in the traditional dessert: cendol, which is a green rice flour jelly that is found in many Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. These countries have their own version of a shaved ice dessert, such as Ais Kacang in Singapore and Malaysia, Cendol in Indonesia, and Chè Ba Mau in Vietnam. (We could go on another rabbit hole with the various icy treats around the world, but we won’t right now. Feel free to search it up. The histories are rich!)

Our recent birthday smorgasbord for my daughter included:

  • Crushed ice
  • Condensed milk
  • Evaporated Milk
  • Plantain bananas
  • Mango
  • Leche Flan
  • Sago pearls (starch from tropical palm stems, with a little blue coloring)
  • Jackfruit
  • Coconut gel cubes (regular and lychee flavor, also known as nata de coco)
  • Japanese sweet potatoes
  • Cendol

 This was the first time I made halo-halo in Singapore. When my family and I prepared it in California, we were able to obtain a lot of ingredients since there are many ethnic goods in the state. Here in Asia however, we were spoiled for choice. Many options were readily available in regular supermarkets or the corner stores. I could even order from Amazon Prime and have the foods delivered within hours. Since there were so many options, I deferred on buying other traditional toppings such as:

  • Pinipig – small, flat rice flakes
  • Purple yam (a.ka. ube) – either freshly steamed, in a jam, or ice cream
  • Macapuno – coconut strips in syrup
  • Garbanzo beans, red kidney beans, and black-eye peas
  • Corn kernels
  • Palm fruit
  • Gulaman – jellies made with agar (a carbohydrate that comes from red seaweed)
  • Cantaloupe (rock melon, as they say in Singapore)
  • Fruit cocktail (in a can)

It may seem as if I skipped too many ingredients, but, really, anything goes with halo-halo, which says a lot about Philippine culture and resilience. Food has also been a love language in many households. It certainly continues to be in mine. Perhaps this is historical proof that love truly does conquer all.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

Originally published November 22, 2020

Food is love in our family. I made this heart for my daughter with crystalized sugar.

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