The first time I had halo-halo was when I was backpacking through the Philippines. That was back in 2008 or 2009. It was hot out, and I saw a guy just selling it. So we went to his little shack, and they probably had about 20 different toppings lined up and it's like a conveyor belt. The ice came out and it went from family member to family member and they just topped it off with all these different things. It had candied red beans in it and that immediately took me back to when I had been in China, and had the red bean ice cream there. There was some tamarind in it—and we Latinos, we have tamarindo with our piraguas. So when you eat halo-halo, you have all these different R_atatouille_ moments that transport you to different locations around the world or different times in your life. It's pretty incredible.
The thing that brought me to the Philippines was, well, Filipino women. My fiancé is Filipino. We met when I was a chef and she was the GM at a restaurant in Soho. She had this dream to take Filipino food mainstream, to open a restaurant where people would accept it. And I said, "Give me a shot, I'll do it." Her response was, "You're not fucking Filipino. What the fuck do you know?" But there are a lot of chefs out there who are doing food that's not native to their origins, so I gave it a shot.
Before we opened the restaurant, we did a lot of research and development here in the States, but in order to really understand the food and the culture—everything the Philippines had to offer—we actually went back to the Philippines and backpacked for three months. We started at the most northern point and just zigzagged our way south and saw so many different variations of national dishes.
As a New Yorker, born and raised, and as a chef, I'm always looking for something that's really going to blow my mind in terms of flavor—I get bored so easily. If I have a dish that's absolutely incredible, I don't want to eat it again for six months, because I don't want to grow tired of it. With Filipino food, there are so many different levels of flavor, but it's so damn simple. There's nothing complicated about it. It's all about when to add the ingredients. It's like a party in your mouth, a punch in your mouth. There are all these intense flavors—the sour note, the salty, the sweet. It's a journey every time you eat the food. Once you're done with it, you want to come back and eat more. And it's so damn good the next day! The leftovers are always better.
The funny thing is, you can talk to anybody and they'll be like, "You know, my cousin dated a girl who lived next door to a guy who was a Filipino." There's like seven degrees of separation—everyone knows a Filipino somewhere and is familiar with the food. So we have a lot of people come into our restaurant because they have some type of connection to a Filipino. They want to be transported back to that memory of eating Filipino food before. A lot of people come in here for the halo-halo—it's a beautiful thing.
So, to make halo-halo, you start with shaved ice. And it's topped with a milk mixture. We do a combination of evaporated and condensed and coconut milk, so you have layers of flavors and sweetness. And then, depending where you're at, you have a variety of toppings. It varies from region to region, but there are no rules for it. I use red beans that have been cooked down in sugar; some nato de coco_, which is basically coconut Jell-O; some palm fruit, which is great for color and sweetness; and some pandan jelly. Then maybe some candied banana and jackfruit. You can go all crazy with toppings. I've seen Cap'n Crunch on it. And then a nice scoop of ice cream. Today, I'm serving _ube ice cream, but personally, I prefer the cheese ice cream—ube's good, but cheese, man, it's like buttered popcorn in ice cream. I'm a fat kid on the inside and out, you know?
Halo-halo translates to "mix mix" so all you do is mix all this stuff up—beat it up. But my favorite part, the key component, the best part of halo-halo, for me, is this: flan. You put it right on top.
You really can't tell what the origins of halo-halo are, because there are a lot of cultures that have shaved ice as a dessert. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, we do piraguas. The Portuguese, Spanish, and Haitians—they all do flan. But then they say flan comes from France, like crème brulée or crème caramel. But who knows where it really comes from? When it comes to Filipino cuisine, there have been so many different types of influences.
Imagine a five-year-old kid making his own dessert. He has shaved ice and milk as a base. Then he just goes crazy. That's what halo-halo is.
As told to Alex Swerdloff.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Miguel Trinidad is a Dominican-American chef and an alumni of the Institute of Culinary Education. He is the owner and executive chef of NYC's Maharlika Filipino Moderno and Jeepney Filipino Gastropub.