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Japanese origins of the Philippine 'halo-halo'
Publication Date : 31-08-2012
Contrary to popular belief, the halo-halo (mix-mix), our iconic summer cooler, is a Philippine dish with Japanese origins.
Over the years we have consumed halo-halo at venues ranging from roadside stands to Chowking fast-food outlets to five-star hotels like the Manila Peninsula (which was the first to serve it in an oversized, specially made bowl instead of the usual tall glass).
I have tried Digman’s halo-halo in Cavite and knew the cranky old lady in a Guagua subdivision who served it with palabok and French fries. Guagua, Pampanga halo-halo is now a fast-growing franchise with “The Original Razon’s halo-halo and palabok. Since 1972” with the red sign, competing with “Razon’s” with a blue sign that is not “original” but run by a certain “Allan G. Garcia”. Then there is another competitor from Angeles, Pampanga, called “Halo-halo sa Corazon’s”.
The best halo-halo in Manila is in Milky Way on Pasay Road. Why do I think it is the best? They use finely shaved (not crushed) ice and freshly stewed condiments.
The origin of halo-halo can be traced to the prewar Japanese, who specialised in preserving beans like mongo, garbanzos, and kidney beans in a thick syrup. They then took the next step by serving these on crushed ice—a concoction that we have since indigenised into a Philippine version of the Japanese kakigori.
A friend on Facebook, Seneca Nuñez Pellano, attended my Ayala Museum lecture last weekend and sent this excerpt from “A Japanese in the Philippines” by Kiyoshi Osawa (1981) that pertains to halo-halo:
“Another line of business monopolised by the Japanese [in the Philippines] was what we Japanese called mongo-ya. Mongo is a Tagalog word meaning red beans. What was sold for ten centavos was a plateful of cooked red beans heaped with ground ice, topped with sugar and milk. The business could be started with a small capital outlay and some Japanese, after a few years of modest saving as farming immigrants, turned a new leaf as proprietors of mongo-ya. All that was needed to open a shop were a makeshift hut, some small tables and log chairs, and one young boy to help. Also needed were red beans, ice cream, papayas, and penny candies, all in small quantities.”
Elsewhere in this book we read: “Many mongo shops enjoyed fast growth and expansion. Some of them were so successful they grew into bazaars in a few years’ time. Following the Japanese evacuation after World War II, these mongo shops vanished entirely from the market scene.”
If we go back in history we will know that the tropical Philippines did not have a regular supply of ice until the Americans built the Insular Ice Plant at the turn of the last century. Filipinos got their first taste of ice that was imported from the United States in the mid-19th century. Ice ships carrying the blocks of Wenham Lake Ice sailed from America to India and Australia with a stopover in the Philippines. We could not have had halo-halo before the introduction of ice in the mid-1800s and the introduction, by the Japanese, of beans in syrup before World War II.
Halo-halo can also be found in slightly different form and taste in neighbouring countries. On my first trip to Singapore I was surprised to be served “ais kachang” or bean ice in a bowl, and I told my hosts that this was copied from the Philippines, just as Singapore appropriated the Merlion as its mascot when the very same mythical creature has been on the coat of arms of the City of Manila as approved by Philip II since the late 16th century. It seems that Singapore got “ais kachang” from neighbouring Malaysia, which also has “chendol” and something called “ABC” (for “air batu campur”).
Vietnam is another place where you can find duck eggs cooked like the Philippine “balut”. Its version is called “trung vit lon” and is eaten with salt, lemon and ground pepper and pushed down with homemade beer. Vietnam’s version of halo-halo is “cha ba mau.” Thailand has “nam keng sai,” which all Pinoys know as “Thai halo-halo”. It consists of water chestnuts in red gulaman served in a bowl topped by crushed ice, coconut milk and syrup. I’m sure that the nationalistic Vietnamese, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians, and Thais will insist that the Philippine halo-halo was copied from them, so where did the “original” halo-halo come from?
Halo-halo and its Asian cousins have one common ingredient: shaved ice. Halo-halo and its Asian cousins trace only one common root: the Japanese kakigori that goes back a thousand years. Japanese nobles in the Heian period used to enjoy ice even in the summer because it was harvested in the winter and stored in special imperial ice caves. In the 10th-century “Pillow Book” Sei Shonagon provided a list of “elegant things,” one of these being “shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and served in a new silver bowl”.
FB friends Karl Ian Cheng Chua and Michael de la Fuente report that Philippine halo-halo is sold in Mini Stop Convenience Stores in Japan and come in three flavours: “ramune” (lemon), wild mountain grape, and uji kindoki, a kakigori flavour consisting of green tea from Uji in Kyoto, red beans, and glutinous flour balls.
Philippine halo-halo has the condiments under ice while the Japanese version has the condiments over the ice. It is amazing how many historical connections can be had from a glass of halo-halo.