The magic begins with a crunch that, in the blistering afternoon heat, sounds like salvation. When it infiltrates the house, my cousins and I know it is time to be happy again, for it means that someone, most likely my grandmother, is preparing shaved ice. Her ice crusher is straight out of history: a twenty-five-inch-tall monster made of metal, with flower engravings and a large turning wheel latched to the right. The wheel is connected to a mechanical pole wrapped with intersecting irons that end in a flat circular metal head with teeth.
The wheel has a turning handle and when moved to the right, the head dips down in circular motions, ravaging blocks of ice until they turn into thin sheets. This magical process is shielded by a wall of engraved flowers but the sound it creates conjures up the snow. We would rush behind her, tugging. This was a prelude to the highlight of my childhood summers: halo-halo.
When small vendors started lining up in the streets or when it became available in small restaurants, I knew it was time to be a pig. For summer was two long months of eating and running around and sleeping and going to town fiestas or to the beach, devouring home-cooked meals. Mine was extremely special, for it was the only time of the year when I was allowed to stay at my grandfather’s house in Batangas, where I could eat macopas all day and night and play-fight with my cousins. When afternoons became so unbearable that beads of sweat formed even in the absence of movement, my grandmother would prepare the famous Filipino dessert and we would watch her transformations with awe and excitement.
For my grandmother, the enchantment begins before making shaved ice. Crafting a halo-halo is easy but labor-intensive, especially if starting with raw ingredients from the market. As with Filipino dishes, a long process of cleaning, pruning, and cutting marks the prelude to cooking. The saba and the camote are cleaned, boiled with sugar, and cut into edible pieces. The pearls, the jellies, and the beans are soaked in water brought to a boil. Unlike most ingredients, the jellies need to cool down and shaped before they are sliced into squares. The leche flan is the most time-consuming and would have to be prepared the night before. With the flan, one has to go through the tricky process of separating the yolk from the egg whites before beating and mixing it with milk in one direction (my grandmother claimed this minimizes bubbles). In a pot, vanilla is stirred and caramelized before decanted into the bottom of the llanera, where it sits awhile. The milk-egg concoction is then pelted over the caramel and then covered in tin foils. Then the llaneras are steamed for a spell, then cooled in the refrigerator.
My grandmother would sprinkle the ingredients one at a time into a tall glass, as if muttering a charm: the fruits come first—the sweetened saba, the caramelized langka, and the boiled camote; then the whites like nata de coco and kaong. The lighter ones follow: the beans—the red mung beans and the sweet flesh-colored dried ones I would nibble on when she was not looking; the red tapioca pearls; and the green jellies that eventually get covered with sugar. The shaved ice hides the ingredients before getting lavishly drenched in evaporated milk. By the time my grandmother placed the caramel flan on top, my cousins and I would have had spoons in hand, piping competitive ‘Mine-Mine-Mine’ in rabid succession.
Mixing everything in the glass is a must in eating halo-halo. Unearthing the ingredients like a box of treasures adds to its allure—you’ll never know what’s under until you scoop it out. The Filipino treat has no definite history or origin except that the mung beans are probably the first to get into the glass. Historian Ambeth Ocampo proposes that the treat started during the American occupation, initiated by Japanese spies who posed as street vendors selling kakigori, a Japanese dessert with mung beans, shaved ice, and milk.
In time, the minimalist Japanese cold treat was assimilated and Filipinos began to experiment, adding every ingredient imaginable: macapuno would be dumped into the pile—a staple of Razon’s halo-halo; ube instead of the caramel flan on top; pinipig; various fruits; and ice cream. Up north in Sagada, the street halo-halo contains a peculiar ingredient: al dente elbow macaroni. As with the origin of the treats, nobody knows how the practice started.
When we have become oversaturated with halo-halo, as what happens when you have had it for five days straight, my grandmother would resort to other cool desserts. Mais con hielo was the second-best option and crafting one required minimal ingredients: corn kernels, evaporated milk, tapioca pearls, and shaved ice. There’s no thinking involved here—just put everything in the glass and serve. My grandmother, goddess of patience and control, would torment us by picking the kernels one by one from a bushel of boiled corn.
When corn was unavailable, the saba took the place of the mais and saved the day. Fresh from the tree, this variety is the most boring banana in the world. But placed in fire, it transforms into a cooking favorite. When my grandmother wanted to indulge us, the saba would be caramelized in a pan and served with a dollop of ice cream: the brittle sugar complements the tender meat, creating a texture that is smoothened over by the melting vanilla ice cream. It was sublime.
My cousins and I would also make ice candies when the elders were away. The mixture was simple: make juice. Orange was common and so was chocolate. We poured the juice in a small cylindrical plastic, tie it at the top, and shove it into the freezer. My cousin made a killing once when she sold ice candies in a town fair. And patinteros and piko would stop when we heard the diminutive jingling bell sounds—the sorbetes vendor! We would scramble to buy dirty ice cream in cheese, chocolate, avocado, langka, and cookies and cream flavors.
Buco pandan became the superstar in town fiestas, which happened almost every other day in May. The preparation was theoretically easy: combine coconut strips, tapioca pearls, cream, condensed milk, and pandan jellies. It could be served with shaved ice in a pudding platter or frozen in the refrigerator like a fruit salad. Either way, the output was a cool tropical dessert to erase the excesses of menudo and lechon.
Nowadays, we don’t make halo-halo or any summer treats from scratch anymore. Halo-halo was never meant for summer alone; if we crave it any time of the year, we order or swing by the nearest Filipino restaurant or at The Peninsula, where they serve it in large bowls that are reputed to be the best in town. Sometimes—in very rare times—my siblings and I would huddle together and craft the dessert piece by piece to the entertainment of my nieces and nephews. We now have a mechanical ice shaver that reduces the waiting time but creates the same rough churning sounds—arousing the familiar amusement from the kids. The magic is still there.
Written by Leilani Chavez
Illustration By Nonie Cruzado