When chocolate rice is a breakfast staple and sugary cheese bread makes an appearance at merienda (snack time), it’s hard to know where everyday Filipino food ends and dessert begins. (Spoiler: There’s no clear line, Filipinos will happily eat these all day every day.)
But for purposes of this article, I’m defining dessert as something you’d usually eat at the end of an enormous family dinner (you know, the buffets where there’s so much food that there isn’t room for anyone to actually sit at the table anymore, where aunts tell you simultaneously how fat you’ve gotten while also insisting you eat more, and where karaoke is happening in the background).
Many of these desserts use rice flour—a staple of the 7000 islands that compose the Philippines—along with tropical fruit like coconut, saba bananas (cooking bananas), and ube (purple yam). And while there are traditional methods and countless variations of each, the most Filipino approach of all would be to make these with whatever you have, however you can, and to share with everyone —even if they claim they’re too full to eat another bite.
Halo-Halo (“hall-o hall-o”)
Perhaps the most well-known of Filipino desserts, halo-halo translates to “mix mix” and is just that: a jumble of toppings that you literally mix up to eat. Its origins can be traced back to various Japanese shaved ice desserts, but now halo-halo is a menu staple at most Filipino restaurants (Anthony Bourdain even tried some at the Filipino chain Jollibee in Los Angeles!).
The combination of sweet toppings may vary, but there is a general formula: a starchy base like boiled beans or ube; a syrupy fruit like macapuno coconut or jackfruit; a layer of jello; a layer of shaved ice; some ice cream or leche flan; and, finally, a drizzle of evaporated milk.
Tropical Ice Cream
In the Philippines, ice cream peddlers sell tiny cones for the U.S. equivalent of 45 cents. While you won’t find one of them in the U.S., brands like Magnolia and Mitchell’s import or make their own versions of Filipino flavors that are often unavailable at regular American markets. These tropical flavors come in an array of colors and include mango, avocado, jackfruit, ube, multiple kinds of coconut (buko, macapuno, and buko pandan—young coconut, matured sweetened coconut, and young coconut flavored with the tropical, vanilla-esque pandan leaf, respectively), and cheese. Yes, cheese!
Ube Halaya (“oo-beh ha-lay-ah”)
Ube, often confused with its cousin taro, is a sweet purple yam native to the Philippines. Ube halaya is both a traditional dessert in itself and also a base for many other Filipino treats like halo-halo, ube bread, and ube ice cream. To make ube halaya, the ube is boiled, grated, then mixed with sugar and milk until it thickens into a viscous pudding. It can then be eaten with a spoon or in small chewy bite-sized pieces, depending on how the cook has prepared it.
These sweet, flat rice cakes are made of only five ingredients: water, rice flour, coconut, sesame seeds, and sugar. Their name comes from their cooking process: “Litaw” means “to float,” and that’s exactly how you know they’ve finished cooking. Although they are traditionally made with home-ground sticky rice, you’re more likely to find them made with factory-processed glutinous rice flour today. Water is added to glutinous rice flour and kneaded until a mochi-like consistency is formed. They’re then dropped in boiling water until they float, then scooped out and dipped with grated coconut, toasted sesame seeds, and sugar.
Puto and Kutsinta (“koo-chin-tuh”)
These bite-sized treats are both made from rice flour and steamed: The difference is that kutsinta gets its color and texture from brown sugar and lye water. While either one can be eaten for breakfast or merienda, puto is often served alongside savory dishes like dinuguan (a savory meat stew) and pancit (noodles). For dessert, puto and kutsinta are usually served together, with grated coconut or melted butter.
Ginatan is a pudding-like dessert that’s served warm. It’s typical base is made of coconut milk and rice flour, then customized with additional ingredients like mais(corn) and mungo (mung bean). The most popular version, however, is bilo bilo : Deriving from the word “bilog,” meaning, “round,” bilo bilo contains chewy rice balls mixed with cooking bananas (saba) or plantains, a root vegetable (such as ube, sweet potato, or taro), coconut milk, jackfruit, and tapioca pearls. It’s among the heartier Filipino desserts and also happens to be vegan and gluten-free.
Leche flan is one of many legacies of Spanish colonization in the Philippines from the sixteenth to late nineteenth centuries. It’s inspired by and very similar to the European crème caramel, but the Filipino version often uses sweetened condensed milk in place of regular milk. This creamy egg custard is often served with a light caramel syrup on top and prepared for special occasions.
Kalamay , meaning “sugar,” is a sticky dessert with a flavor similar to that of a coconut rice pudding. But because the sweet rice (or, more commonly, glutinous rice flour) is heated and then left to cool, the texture is chewy and dense rather than creamy and soft. Kalamay always contains coconut milk, sugar, and ground rice as its base, but it varies throughout different regions of the country: There’s peanut butter kalamay in Mindoro and green rice kalamay in Tarlac in the north, for example.
Turon is a common street food made of sliced saba bananas, jackfruit, and brown sugar wrapped in a spring roll wrapper and fried. When the roll is fried, the sugar melts and seeps out, coating the wrapper in a caramel syrup. Turon can be eaten at room temperature but are best hot off the pan and served with ice cream.
Buko Salad (“boo-koh”)
Buko salad is the Philippines’ take on fruit salad. It (young coconut) is mixed with condensed milk, heavy cream, and canned fruit cocktail, then chilled before serving, and it’s also common to add for fresh fruit like apples and grapes for texture. Buko salad is often more about the temperature and texture (cold and creamy) than the flavors of the fruit, making it a rich and refreshing treat in the humid climate.
Maruya are the Philippines’ version of banana fritters. Saba bananas are sliced and dipped in a thin, pancake-like batter, then fried and sprinkled with sugar. Although this dessert can often be found as street food, it’s commonly made at home, too. Other less traditional versions use sweet potato, coconut, or corn in place of the bananas.
Gulaman , or agar, is a type of dried seaweed used to make jellos and gelatin. The seaweed is dehydrated and sold in bars, which are then broken up and boiled in water to create the jelly. And the word “gulaman” also refers to the actual dessert that the gulaman bars are turned into.
Traditional recipes call for fruit and extracts to sweeten the otherwise-flavorless gelatin, and the finished dessert often consists of different layers of gulaman, all flavored differently. It’s common to include a layer set around fruit cocktail, a “milky” layer composed of an evaporated milk or almond jello, and an additional fruity layer on top.
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