The main characters in the novel I’m writing are a husband and wife. I’ve set the scene for them in lots of different places. They talk and fight in the car and at the beach. They talk and laugh and cry in the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom of their Manila apartment. They talk on the phone, and they go out to eat, together and with friends. That gives me a chance to write about food.
Like most cities around the world, Manila’s restaurants serve a variety of cuisines. So far my characters have talked and argued over eggs and pancakes at McDonalds. They’ve invited guests to a Spanish restaurant where they ordered paella Valenciana and sangria. When their electricity went out, they had Japanese food at a hotel restaurant.
Now they’re about to stop for a snack. And I can think of no better snack to go with the serious conversation I have in store for them than halo-halo especial. Unfortunately, a full description of halo-halo isn’t going to fit into the narrative of my novel, so I thought I’d write about it here.
Halo-halo (meaning mix-mix) allows for many variations. This is the way I remember it. They serve it to you in a tall, old-fashioned soda shoppe glass, the kind with a pedestal. If you ask for especial, it comes with a scoop of ice cream on top—mango or ube being the favorites. Through the glass, you can see crushed ice over messy layers of colorful, exotic ingredients.
The whole concoction requires some stirring with a long spoon. It’s up to the customer how much he or she wants to stir it and whether to eat the ice cream first or stir it in.
Here are some of the ingredients you might find in the messy, colorful layers at the bottom:
- Sweet red beans and/or sweet white beans
- Nata de coco and/or nata de piña
- Jack fruit
- Sago (tapioca)
- Sweetened saba banana
- Sweet corn kernels
- Sweet potatoes
- Ube (a purple sweet potato)
Before topping the halo-halo with a scoop of ice cream, sweetened evaporated milk is poured over the ice.
Nata de coco and nata de piña are small, translucent, slightly chewy, jelly-like cubes. The nata de coco is made by fermenting grated coconut, coconut water, water, and sugar with acetic acid and a starter. Nata de piña starts with pineapple juice. They’re both delicious! Here are some instructions for making nata de coco. It’s easier, of course, to buy it already bottled.
Macapuno, another interesting and delicious ingredient, is the meat of a coconut from a naturally occurring mutant dwarf coconut tree. The coconut meat, instead of hardening into the firm, white solid coconut we’re used to seeing, remains soft and slightly translucent. It’s usually preserved in long shreds in a heavy syrup.
Here’s wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, a great holiday for counting your blessings and enjoying family, friends, and lots of good food.