Purple Yam and Halo-Halo: The Delicious, Contradictory World of Filipino Desserts

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Joey Parsons, Flickr

Academics and self-aware natives are fond of wheeling out the term "contradiction" to describe the culture of the Philippines. East and West grapple over the country's national identity, and contradictions of all kinds seep into all parts of daily life.

They've even worked their way into the rolls.

If you've ever had a Filipino breakfast or visited a Filipino bakery, you've likely encountered pandesal, the common yeast-raised morning treat whose name literally translates to "salt bread." It looks like a savory Western dinner roll. But it's actually a sweet bun.

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Pandesal.

So it goes in the world of Filipino cuisine. Now, after exploring its savory side, we're diving into dessert. A high-walled mixing bowl of influences—some geographic, some colonial, some just plain strange—shape the country's complex, delicious, and at times beguiling approach to sweets.

Local Ingredients...

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Cake made with chewy cassava starch.

Let's start with the basics. The Philippine archipelago is a lush and tropical collection of islands, and as such has a wealth of indigenous fruits and starches that make their way into just about everything. "It's about taking advantage of what's abundant in the Philippines—rice, coconuts, bananas," says Zynthia Martinez, a Filipino-American baker based in Philadelphia.

Among the most well-known sweets where native flora is concerned: suman, rice cakes flavored with local add-ins, wrapped in palm or banana leaves, and steamed; puto, another type of springy rice cake that often accompanies savory stews; champorado, a congee-like porridge, often served at breakfast, made with barely sweet chocolate and rice; bibingka, a gooey, creamy coconut cake with a rice flour base; and turon, a sweet take on lumpia (fried spring rolls) that swaps meat out for caramelized bananas or plantains.

The big aesthetic shocker is ube, a bright purple—like Grimace purple—yam, is a base starch valued for its innate sweetness and unmatched visual appeal, its flavor worked into bread doughs, cakes, cookies, crackers, and more. Cassava, too, is a versatile base ingredient in the desserts arsenal, the starchy root taking place of all-purpose flour in sticky square pan cakes popular at family gatherings.

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"[Cassava's] just textural. It's a lot of chewy, gelatinous, doughy," says Chrissy Camba, chef/owner of Chicago's Laughing Bird, a Filipino-American bar and restaurant.

These building-block ingredients, in one form or another, make it into a vast array of Filipino desserts. Capitalizing on what's close, local and seasonal is what aligns the Philippines with the leanings of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Things get a little trickier to define, however, once the baking and pastry traditions born outside the Pinoy canon enter the discussion.

...Meet Global Influences

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Bibingka.

Since the Philippines was controlled by Spain for nearly 400 years, a specific brand of European influence, plus elements from other former Spanish colonies (Mexico in particular), lord over the Filipino kitchen. This is particularly apparent when it comes to bread baking, a major deviation from many other Southeast Asian nations, which skew toward variations on naan, roti, and other flatbreads originating on the Indian subcontinent.

The Philippines' two most recognizable breads, pandesal (which has a biscuit-like consistency and is best eaten fresh from the oven), and ensaymada (brioche-like sweet buns, topped with sugar, coconut or cheese), have plenty in common with the pan dulce produced by Spanish and Mexican bakeries. Though phonetically different, little separates Filipino lecheplan from good ol' flan. Goldilocks is the most recognized Filipino bakery chain in the world, its "native treats" line doubling as a primer highlighting the most essential dishes.

Filipino food writer Doreen G. Fernandez also uncovered a latent French influence in Filipino cooking, brought about by a combination of aristocratic Filipinos growing enamored with haute cuisine and culinary students studying abroad in the early 20th century. These parallels begin with desserts like petit choux and sans rival, a delicate buttercream-chopped nut-meringue layer cake inspired by dacquoise. Meringue, in general, can be found on its own or worked into snacks like silvana, basically sans rival in ice cream sandwich form.

Hyper-Sweet and Savory

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Lecheplan.

With influences from all over, what elemental qualities bind Filipino desserts together?

"They embrace sweet—really, really embrace sweet," says Dale Talde, chef/owner of Talde in Brooklyn. "Give-you-cavities sweet. Straight diabetes."

He's not exaggerating. While other Asian dessert makers lean on unadulterated mildly sweet bases, like starchy fruits and beans, Filipinos tend to dump sugar over everything, regardless of how much sweetness the dessert really needs. You see the sugar-shock in everything from polvoron, easy-crumbling paper-wrapped holiday candies that disintegrate into a gritty consistency when bitten, to sambo, a multi-layered gelatin cake that employs both condensed and evaporated milk. And sugar. And chocolate.

Just as mystifying to outsiders: cheese. I don't mean the fancy brie you get on a cheese plate; I'm talking about keso, the salty, highly processed commodity cheese rendered school-bus yellow. Keso gets chopped up and baked on top of ensaymada or bibingka, and even spun into ice cream.

More on the savory end: salted duck and chicken eggs also make appearances, nonchalantly topping breads and cakes. "It's often sweet with a salty component—definitely more on the sweet side, with a savory element to reset your palate," says Martinez.

"I feel like you can't find these kinds of flavor combinations in any other cuisine," says Camba. "Sometimes, we just put cheese on it. The sugar and cheese combination, I know, is kinda wonky to a lot of people."

And the Halo-Halo Crown

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Joey Parsons, Flickr

If there's a single quintessential dessert reigning over the Filipino tradition, one that embraces the dizzying wonkiness of the Filipino sweet-tooth as a whole, it's halo-halo. This choose-your-own adventure dessert literally translates to "mix mix," because that's what you're supposed to do with the chilly layering of shaved ice, evaporated milk (sometimes condensed, too), and toppings, which typically include lecheplan, sweet beans, jellies, canned fruit, and puffed crunchies.

It's texturally bizarre but damn delicious, especially if it's crowned with scoops of Filipino ice cream—many go for ube or keso flavors (yes, the cheese). The quick-melting nature of the dish dictates it must be consumed quickly, meaning it's often chased by a healthy brain freeze session.

Talde will be the first to tell you he's not a sweets guy, both personally and professionally—he prefers a pour of whiskey or amaro to end a meal, and doesn't bother with an elaborate dessert list at his eponymous Park Slope restaurant. There's just one option—halo-halo, his way. "It's one of the desserts that I love," he says. "I remember eating it as a kid. When you see it, you don't really know what to make of it—and I like that."

Instead of canned or jarred fruits and jellies, common with streetside halo-halo stands and at-home ice shavers, Talde goes for housemade matcha syrup, coconut bubbles, seasonal fruit, and makrut lime, along with heavy handfuls of Fruity Pebbles or Cap'n Crunch. At Laughing Bird in Chicago, Camba offers a fully realized chef's rendition, too, combining fruit and ice with her own almond and palm jellies, caramel milk and vanilla bean soft serve.

Not everyone is enthused by these takes, fun-loving and high-end as they may be. Talde says his customers have always been split down the middle by it—half totally into the mix-mix, the other half confused, flummoxed, or downright turned off by the concept. "Sometimes, people just don't get it," he says. "We've had someone legitimately not even touch it, push it away and say they didn't want to eat it."

That's halo-halo for you. And really, that's all Filipino desserts for you, too. Aggressively sweet, sneakily salty, texturally challenging, historically indefinable—and above all else, comfortable with contradiction, just like Filipinos themselves.