Language is a bit of a challenge trying to identify when ice cream and even halo-halo emerged. ‘Sorbetes‘ in Tagalog covers both frozen water/fruit juice confections and ice creams. In Spanish we have helado attached to chilled/iced products like quesos helado, mentioned in an 1875 Manila directory.
Aha, you may think: Cheese ice cream! But there is no cheese in quesos helados. A speciality of Madrid, these are variously coloured water-ice sorbets put into small shaped moulds with milk added. When frozen they look like little cheeses, hence the name.
Helado is also used for ice-cream, sorbete for sorbet, hielo for ice and sorbete de leche specifically for ice cream as well as Mantecado and helado Leche..
Upper-crust menus were often in French. Glace is the French for ice, creme glace is ice cream, and sorbet is sorbet, but, again glace can cover both sorbet and ice cream.
The same applies also in the English term ‘ices’.
A 1913 instruction to ice cream makers and sellers uses mantecado for ice cream, a term that does not seem to appear in 19th century Philippines.
Then there is garapinera. While often assumed to be an ice cream/sorbet maker even that may be unsafe. Online friend Zeidrick J Cudilla brought my attention to an 1866 Spanish-Visayan dictionary which mentions garapinyera as a box in which beverages are kept, but does not imply ice was used.
In Waray it refers generically to a container for water.
To add to the confusion, garapinera also refers to the insulated container vendors carried their product around in rather than the device it was made with.
You can watch how ice cream was made in Victorian times here:
So, as far as we know, the first unambiguous appearance of ice-cream was in 1902 during a visit by the USS Alert to the Philippines.
Canned milk was beyond the pocket of most Filipinos at the time so the emergence of ice cream parlours had to await the arrival of a large enough customer base with deep enough pockets to pay for such a luxury.
By 1903 there were five such parlours and 18 by 1918.
What about Halo-Halo, perhaps the best known of Filipino confections? Its core ingredient is, of course, shaved ice and evaporated milk. Most food historians believe it was introduced by the Japanese, although there is some discussion about which Japanese dish inspired it: kakigori or mitsumame.
Sweetened beans and fruit flavours and syrups are typical of kakigori. Although similar in many ways, mitsumame includes pieces of agar jelly and firm custard-type treats similar to leche flan.
Look at the offerings at any street stall selling halo-halo and all those ingredients can be found.
Here is a fairly typical kakigori recipe:
And finally halo-halo
Shaved ice was intended to simulate snow, anything using crushed ice cannot be regarded as an authentic dessert of this class.
Ambeth Ocampo is credited with suggesting in the 1980s that halo-halo was introduced by Japanese eateries early in the 20th century and believes it was inspired by kakigori.
Taking something foreign and adapting it to become wholly Filipino is about as Filipino as one can get. If kakigori is a Willys Jeep, halo-halo is a jeepney.
Such indigenisation is seen elsewhere. Battered fish and chips, for instance, is seen as a very British dish but it is little more than 150 years old and is derived from a French cooking method for fish and a Belgian potato-based street food.
And Japanese Tempura and Kuratsu are indiginised versions of European dishes introduced during the Meiji period.
Although the appearance of halo-halo is commonly connected to the opening of the Insular Ice Plant and to have first appeared in the 1920s or 1930s the first is, as we shall see, a bit dubious and the second probably at least a decade too late.
Halo-Halo is a shaved ice dessert of the sort that also became popular in Hawaii and spread from there to the US mainland as a snow cone thanks to Japanese immigration. Some writers believe that shaved ice confections emerged from a Japanese port town of Yokohama in 1869 when Fusazo Machida opened a flavoured ice shop.
Until 1887 the only way of making shaved ice was by hand using a knife or a steel hand shaver of a kind still found in many Filipino kitchens resembling a wood plane. Then Hanzaburo Murakami patented a machine that pressed a block of ice against a rotating disc with blades. In Japan it is often referred to as a kakigori machine.
Indeed, the earliest known relative to halo-halo to appear n the philippines is sweetened mong beans in shaved ice, just a hop away from kakigori.
In the 19th century, there were simply not enough Japanese nationals in Manila to support cafes or restaurants. It was at the opening of the 20th much Japanese immigration into the Philippines. Japan was still largely a poor agricultural economy and men arrived as labourers and women as sex workers who were considered exotic enough to command a higher price than Filipinas but less that Caucasians.
Exactly when Japanese eating places arrived remains a matter for research but with them almost certainly came shaved ice desserts.
Three such desserts come to the fore; monggo con hielo, mais con hielo and Halo-halo, none of them apparently widely known enough in Spanish Philippines to appear in traveller’s guides. Their existence prior to 1900 needs to be explored but their names do suggest Spanish-era heritage.
Monggo con hielo, sweet mung beans with ice, which food historian Felice Prudente Sta Maria traces to mitsumame, appears in 1912 as one of several items provided to children attending the intermediate school in Tondo in a report by the Philippine Health Service in 1912. The context shows that it was considered nutritious, cheap, and was already well-known.
Since this was a government project the ice was certainly sourced from the Insular Ice Plant since it could provide ice cheaply to government projects, workers and the military but not to the general public, as we shall see.
In a 1920 report, during a typhoid outbreak, by the same service both mais con hielo, shaved ice with maize or sweetcorn, and halo-halo appear together for the first time.
You would not, however, want to try it: 40 per cent of more than 900 samples tested proved to be unfit for human consumption, being contaminated by fecal bacteria, b.coli.
While not as dangerous as its cousin, E.Coli, B.Coli contamination led to the closing down of a number of specifically Japanese restaurants.
The contamination did not come from the ice itself but from the unsanitary way it was handled. In 1922 those offering hand-shaved ice desserts were ordered to change to a more modern ice shaving machine that required less handling of the ice, although it safe to assume that many places ignored the instruction.
‘A las quatro‘ is term term still used today to mean quickly, or in a hurry. Its origins are said to be in the siren signalling the end of the working day at the Insular Ice Plant and the workers were in a hurry to go home. Sadly, it is all that remains of an operation that was in many ways legendary.
It was built in 1901-1902 at the suggestion of the Philippine Commission and cost 1,200,000 pesos, an enormous sum at the time. The chimney stack became an iconic part of the Manila skyline.
In the 1930s it provided cold air to the Metropolitan theatre
The plant, of course, produced distilled water. During the devastating 1901-1902 cholera epidemic which may have killed as many as 750,000 Filipinos, the plant shipped 13,000 gallons of distilled water into Manila every day to provide the populace with safe drinking water free of charge.
A military wife who was living in Manila in March 1902, says that ice cream and sorbet vendors were ‘corraled’ and only allowed to sell products made in the vicinity of the ice plant. This seems to be one of the earliest mentions of ice cream and sorbet as separate products.
By 1908, however, the Insular plant was in trouble.
Let’s take a closer look at the Japanese connection.