It's Halo Halo Time
I first became aware of halo halo last summer. I had lunch at Bayan, a Filipino steam table place on East 45th, with Brian, who is Filipino by marriage. On the way out there was a sign on the wall that said "Special: Halo Halo." Halo halo, I learned from Brian, is the Filipino take on ice drinks with multiple ingredients that are popular throughout Southeast Asia. I love Southeast Asian ice drinks, especially on a hot summer day. However, I was too full to try one that day. I didn't get back to Bayan until this summer, also with Brian. This time I ate very little rice with my meal (a combo of pork adobo and dinuguan (a stew of pork and innards in a pig's blood sauce)) in order to leave room for the halo halo.
I think the first of the Southeast Asian ice drinks I really became familiar with was che ba mau, or Vietnamese rainbow ice, at Vietnamese restaurants in New York and San Francisco. The name translates literally as "three-color pudding." Che is a word for a hot pudding in Vietnam as well as the ice drinks. The three colors are red from azuki beans, yellow from mung beans, and green from a gelatin that I believe is made from agar agar. Sometimes other ingredients, like tapioca or crushed peanuts are added. They're layered in a glass with crushed or shaved ice and coconut milk. You mix it up and drink some of it through a straw and eat the rest with a spoon. It's usually available in any Vietnamese restaurant.
My favorite of the ice drinks is ais (or es) cendol (pronounced chendol), an Indonesian and Malaysian specialty. I discovered this on a typical sweltering, muggy day in Penang. I stopped in a coffee shop and ordered one and it was just the perfect thing to cool me down. I became addicted, and consumed them for the rest of my time in Malaysia. Actually, cendol originated on Java, where it's served in a glass, but I prefer the Malaysian version, which is served in a bowl. Cendol is a kind of sweet, chewy noodle made from green pea flour, made greener by coloring from pandan leaves. A bowl of Malaysian ais cendol is made from shaved ice with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup (which has a wonderful creme caramel type of taste) into which is added the cendol, and often other ingredients, like red beans and dark-purple grass jelly (a plant gelatin). It's amazingly refreshing, and while I haven't found a cendol in the U.S. that compares to any I've had in Malaysia (though Nyonya in Brooklyn does a respectable job) it always transports me back to Penang, one of the world's great food cities. Another popular ice drink in Singapore and Malaysia is known either as ais kacang or ABC ("air batu campur," or mixed ice). Ais kacang is made with evaporated milk instead of coconut milk and a sweet red rose syrup. It can have many things mixed in, almost always beans and some kind of gelatin, sometimes corn kernels and palm seeds. I had one ais kacang in Malaysia that also had a scoop of fabulous sweet corn ice cream included.
The thing that most interested me about halo halo was that flan was one of the ingredients, part of the Spanish legacy in Filipino cuisine. Ice cream is also included sometimes, though not in the version at Bayan. Halo halo is pronounced "hollow hollow" and translates as "mix mix." I think it has the most amazing variety of stuff stuffed into a glass of any of the Southeast Asian ice drinks. In the one I had at Bayan there was a base of crushed (not shaved) ice and milk with a bunch of ingredients at the bottom and some squares of flan, some shreds of langka (jackfruit), and a lump of ube (purple yam) paste on top. I'm probably missing some of the ingredients, but there were definitely red beans, some kind of gelatin, cubes of caramelized plantain, sweet potato and chick peas (!). It was excellent, and the flan was definitely the crowning glory, but it hasn't quite dethroned cendol in my ice drink pantheon.
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Bayan is at 212 E. 45th, between 2nd & 3rd Avenuues. I think they only serve halo halo in the summer.
Che ba mau is easy to find at Vietnamese restaurants in New York's various Chinese neighborhoods (most Vietnamese restaurants in NYC are run by ethnic Chinese), but I think the best I've had recently was in Bay Ridge, at Pho Hoai, at 4th Avenue and 86th Street, right next to the R train.
A good place to try cendol is Nyonya. They have three branches: in Sunset Park (my favorite), at 5323 8th Avenue (@ 54th Street), in Bensonhurst, at 2322 86th Street, and in Chinatown at 194 Grand Street (between Mott & Mulberry). They also serve ABC.