I BASK in the rainy season because its winds bring with it scents and sensations that seem to have come from places far beyond the mountains that enclose our city. However, this rainy month, I can’t help but dwell on the tastes of summer—halo-halo in particular.
When our neighbor Manang Gina decided this past summer to pursue the nobler cause of taking care of her children’s needs rather than her neighbors’ cravings for her wicked halo-halo, I decided to spend the summer looking for halo-halo that could match hers: a tall glass of home-cooked ube and leche flan toppings, finely crushed ice, and a balance of tastes and flavors from fresh and ingredients.
Initially, I tried what Session Road has to offer. It was there that I had halo-halo with too much beans and little else. Its coup de grâce was it came in an elegant bowl and was topped with creamy vanilla ice cream. Another one I tried was rather popular but I wasn’t happy with it because it had buko, white beans, white nata de coco, and white sago. In spite of the huge slab of leche flan placed on top, it was quite depressing eating a monochromatic halo-halo.
I moved on and was surprised to find halo-halo where UBBOG usually meets. It was interesting because it’s topping was ube ice cream instead of the more conventional halayang ube. It was also topped with colorful gulaman cubes aside from the usual pinipig. It was such a cheerful bowl that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the ingredients were obviously fresh from the freezer. At a certain place the halo-halo was ridiculously priced at P95 that I didn’t bother trying it.
Thus, I learned the pricey way that the humble halo-halo at roadside stalls in the barangays has more potential at satisfying the common Filipino’s cravings for a cool treat on a warm day, for it was at a small stall at a barangay near us that I (finally) found halo-halo that could almost match Manang Gina’s.
Though it was in a regular plastic cup, the kind used for binatog and taho, it was colorful and varied and yet had a balance in textures and tastes. Plus, it had avocados!—something I’ve never had in a halo-halo before.
I thought my search would temporarily end in June as rains and colds inhibit both craving and availability of halo-halo. However, a study trip in sunny Thailand and a side trip to warm Malaysia and Singapore afforded me an extended summer—until July—and consequently an extended quest for that awesome halo-halo.
I already knew that Malaysia and Singapore, which share similar cultures, had something similar to our halo-halo: chendol and ice kachang so I was eager to try them. The chendols I tried had red beans and green strings made from pea flour. Yet, although this snack has boring ingredients, I thought it’s awesome that it’s flavored with coconut milk, pandan extract, and palm sugar. Ice kachang, on the other hand, had similar ingredients plus black grass jelly, but it was topped with at least three colored syrups. Some optional toppings include mango and durian.
Interestingly, the best chendol I tasted was the one I had on a roadside in Melaka, a Unesco heritage site, and the best ice kachang I had was at a Muslim hawker center in Georgetown, Penang—another heritage site. This ice kachang was topped with crushed peanuts and santan ice cream (if we had this, it would be probably be called gata ice cream). Now, if I were to rank the five chendols I tried in Malaysia and Singapore, last on the list would be the one I had at a restaurant.
In Thailand, I was surprised to learn that the Thais also have something similar to our halo-halo. In fact, it’s closer to our halo-halo than chendol and ice kachang in that it has a wider array of ingredients and colors. Thai halo-halo’s gulamans came in pretty pastel colors that got me excited to taste it. The first taste, however, was strange as there was a distinct smoky taste. That taste came from a slice of grilled bread which is a must ingredient for every Thai halo-halo. The smoky taste mixing with the creamy flavors from evaporated milk and coconut milk eventually grew on me and had me buying another bowl—and craving for another bowl when I woke up the following morning.
Chendol and ice kachang are pleasant because of the coconut milk, and Thai halo-halo is unforgettable because of its smoky taste. Having tried these, I feel that I have come to the end of my search for the best, if not the most satisfying halo-halo. Simply, our halo-halo is the best among them all.
Now that I am home and summer has officially ended, I will be thinking of the tastes and textures in tall glasses of milky ice slush mixed with colorful sago, cubes avocado of boiled bananas, and sweet potato, strings of melon and buko, leche flan, halayang ube, and pinipig. Yes, all these while I bask in the scents and sensations of the rainy season.