I•ATE Food Term of the Week: Halo-halo

July 18, 2020 12:22 pm

Halo-halo banner

Before there was ice cream, there was shaved ice: already the Roman Emperor Nero has reportedly eaten snow topped with fruit and honey. But shaved ice remains a popular hot weather treat across the globe, whether granita and grattachecca in Italy, snowballs in the US, or raspado in Mexico. What they all have in common is that the ice is shaved either by hand or with a specialized machine and comes in different, colourful flavours.

In Asia, shaved ice desserts can be elaborate affairs, often coming with a myriad of toppings and in generous portions.

Halo-halo: Filipino shaved ice

Halo-halo in bowl

Photo credit: Gunawan Haryanto on flickr.

In the Philippines a shaved ice dessert known as halo-halo is served everywhere from street markets to five-star hotels. Technically the grammatically correct name for this dish should be ‘haluhalo’ (from the Tagalog word halo meaning ’to mix’), but it is more widely known as ‘halo-halo’. Although shaved ice is immensely popular nowadays, the country’s tropical climate meant that for most of its history, people had no access to ice. The first ice came to the Philippines via US trading ships in the 19th century. However, factory produced ice became widely available in 1902, when the US opened a large ice plant in Manila.


Japanese kakigori.

The most likely origin of halo-halo is that the Japanese introduced it to the Philippines. The Japanese have been eating shaved ice from as early as the 7th century onwards. They call it kakigori (from the Japanese kaki, ‘to shave’ and kori or gori, ‘ice’). Kakigori consists of shaved ice sweetened with flavoured syrups and topped with red mung bean paste and fruit. The ice itself is often sourced from Japan’s mountain springs and there are special techniques to freeze the ice so that it yields the finest shaves: kakigori ice is meant to resemble freshly fallen snow.

It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Japanese immigrants to the Philippines opened shops where they served a variant of kakigori consisting of mung bean paste topped with shaved ice, milk, and sugar. They called this dish ‘mongo-ya’, after the Tagalog word for mung beans, mongo. Mongo-ya proved immensely popular. When after World War II the original Japanese shops disappeared, the dish stayed. Over time, it was thoroughly nativised with the addition of ingredients such as coconut, banana, jackfruit,  mango, tapioca pearls, agar jelly, leche flan, sweetened beans, sweetened mashed ube (purple yam), and ice cream (often ube flavoured). Halo-halo is usually garnished with toasted rice flakes, although in practice it is often garnished with one’s favourite breakfast cereal. While the resulting dessert is certainly not for food minimalists, halo-halo offers contrasting colours, tastes, and textures with every bite.

Shaved ice in Asia

Shaved ice is found in some form in almost every country in East and Southeast Asia. Two of the more popular versions are baobing and bingsu.


Chinese baobing

Chinese baobing.

The Chinese have been eating shaved ice for centuries. Here it is called baobing (from Mandarin bao ‘shaved’ and bing ‘ice’). Baobing is served in huge sharing portions and topped with seasonal fruit, tapioca pearls, mung beans, sweet jellies, flavoured syrups, and condensed milk.

Korean bingsu

Korean bingsu.

In Korea, shaved ice is called patbingsu, (from pat, ‘red mung bean’ and bingsu, ’shaved ice’) or simply bingsu. Seeing as red bean paste is a Japanese culinary mainstay, patbingsu may have also come from Japan to Korea in the early 20th century. However, historical sources indicate that Koreans ate bowls of shaved ice topped with fruit as far back as the 14th century. Popular bingsu toppings are small rice cakes, milk, green tea, and coffee.


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