In the latest sign that New York City's obsession with Filipino food is legit, halo-halo, the absolutely insane, unapologetically messy, bean-encrusted dessert, is threatening to eclipse the cronut as the summer's best sweet treat.
Okay, nothing is really going to beat the cronut. We know that. But, in all seriousness, Filipino food has swiftly become one of the sexiest cuisines in the country, thanks in part to its takeover of New York City and the fact that, well, Filipino cuisine relies on pork—one of the two things in life that makes me believe there is a higher power (Beyoncé is the other) we must all answer to.
Filipino restaurants in New York City — namely, Maharlika, Pig and Khao, and Jeepney — have all found spots in The New York Times's Dining section and have been reviewed favorably by the Gray Lady's critics. The Spotted Pig, a darling in the food world, recently hosted a Filipino night. And for the past year, experts have been saying Filipino food is the next big thing. So it comes as no surprise that there seems to be an interest in the distinctly Filipino dessert known as halo-halo (pronounced like hah-low rather than hay-low; it means "mix" in Tagalog).
Let me come clean here and risk being disowned by my family by saying that I am not the biggest fan of halo-halo. I hated it as a child. Today, I think it's a fine dessert, but there are better Filipino desserts out there (I still cannot fathom putting beans into a dessert...we'll get to this in a bit). I'd rather have leche flan, the Filipino take on flan, and would, in fact, break my own jaw for some right now. Brazo de mercedes, a rolled cake made with egg whites and egg yolks, and bibingka, a rice cake, I think are also much better.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here is your guide to all things halo-halo.
What is it?
Some desserts, like the cronut (although it is a breakfast pastry, it is fried and frosted, which really makes it a dessert), are lauded for their refinement and go about satisfying your tastebuds in a surgical manner. If the dessert world were tennis, those precious French pastries would be like Roger Federer—utterly refined, effortless, and delicate. Halo-halo, on the other hand, would be more like the physical behemoths that are Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams—instead of seducing your taste buds with style and delicacy, it obliterates them with muscle and force. Here's one fast food version being enjoyed by celebu-chef Anthony Bourdain:
Red beans and chick peas in a dessert? You have to be kidding me.
Anthony Bourdain does not kid about food. But, yes, that's part of the reason I didn't like it when I was a kid: halo-halo looks like an ice cream sundae, but tastes nothing like one. Over the years, I found out that you (at your own risk) can get versions of halo-halo without beans, or even with jackfruit. Sometimes the fruit changes. Sometimes the ice cream flavors change. And that's sort of the beauty of halo-halo—you can put anything you want in it, but the base stays the same—shaved ice, ice cream (purple yam), fresh fruit, some kind of jelly-like object, some kind of crunchy object like Rice Krispies, and milk or evaporated milk.
Serious Eats's Brooke Porter has a good rundown of three kinds of halo-halo being served in New York City, detailing one restaurant, Talde, that uses Cap'n Crunch cereal while another, Pig & Khao, incorporates caramelized plantains. Porter explains:
Halo-halo is traditionally served in layers in a cup or bowl: First comes a hodgepodge of ingredients that can range from red beans and cocoa to fresh fruit, followed by a healthy scoop of shaved ice. This is all topped with evaporated milk, leche flan, ube(purple yam) ice cream, caramelized plantains, and strands of macapuno (coconut).
Sorry. I'm still not convinced.
I don't really blame you. Neither do the chefs who make them. "I'm not sure why people order it. If I heard the description, I would think it wouldn't taste good at all. It's definitely not for everybody," chef Dale Talde, who makes the Cap' N Crunch version, told Porter. In learning to love halo-halo, I've learned that one of the big reasons people like it is that, in spite of the bevy ingredients that go into making one of these bizarro parfaits, it's actually a pretty light dessert.
I realize that isn't exactly the best shill for halo-halo. And you're going to have to be okay with that. The truth is, not everyone is going to love it, and though the chefs who are making their own versions would like lines like the one that swivels around the block for cronuts, it's hard to see that happening for halo-halo. Still, you should at least try it — or else risk missing out on New York's latest foodie craze.