Anatomy of a Recipe: Ginataang Halo Halo

I yam what I yam – everything tuber at Columbus’s
Saraga International Market on Morse Road

Any typical Christmas, we would be in California with my relatives enjoying a number of treats, most of them of Filipino origin.  With the pandemic short-circuiting travel plans, we spent our first holiday together back here in the Buckeye State, where we figured we might as well use the opportunity to start a few new traditions.  Most of the food we had wasn’t Filipino in origin, but we made sure to have a few things around (namely, Toblerone Chocolate Bars, which is considered a spendy sweet treat for the average family, and Polvoron Candies, produced here by local baker Uncle Giant) to remind us of California.

Even with that, I thought about what food item I’d be typically find at my family’s meal gathering that 1) I couldn’t get easily here and 2) whose taste I missed the most.  After much deliberation, I thought of Ginataang Halo Halo (something my family nicknamed Bol Bol), a sweet dessert stew of coconut milk and assorted tubers and fruit, glutinous rice balls, and sago pearls.

But unlike the Pandesal I had made last, I did not have a written family recipe to lean on (all the recipe information is embedded in the minds of various relatives.)  Thus, I would need to do my research on the Interwebs and take a swing with one of the recipes I found.

(My nod to folks who just want to get the recipe: scroll to the end of the next few paragraphs to the “More” jump and you’ll get to the directions directly.  However, like the pandesal, there were a few things I encountered that you might want to consider in making your own version of this dish.)

Glutinous Rice Flour Balls ready to boil, with
Ube, Langka, and Pandan extracts to add some color

In some ways, Filipino cuisine can be likened to one of those bowl places that are commonplace, where you start with a base and customize the way you want.  The big difference in this case is the customizing is based on what’s available in the region – even Adobo (considered by many to the national dish), which has soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorns at its base, can be modified with a number of proteins (pork, chicken, squid, etc.), additional spices (Yellow Adobo involves the very tasty addition of turmeric, for example) or enhancements such as coconut milk.

As it turns out, Ginataang Halo Halo (also known as Ginataang Bilo Bilo and Binignit, among other names) is equally customizable, with a number of tubers (sweet potato or camote, taro, purple yam are common), bananas (typically saba bananas in the Philippines, but various other plantains will work too), jackfruit, and sago pearls as common ingredients. For this first attempt ever, I stayed local and traveled to Saraga International Market to up some purple yams, sweet potatoes, taro, and two different kinds of plantains. My spouse had helped me out earlier by picking up the other needed ingredients (coconut milk, langka, and sago pearls.)

Was going to go with the typical Horn Plantains, but I
threw in some Hawaiian Plantains to mix things up

As I learned on this first-time ever attempt, preparing and cooking this dessert is done in several distinct stages. The tubers and the fruit (save for the langka) were a simple matter of peeling and dicing into medium-sized cubes.  The dough making and then rolling the glutinous rice balls is also relatively simple, but might be the most lengthy process.  Preparing the sago pearls is also very simple, but as you’ll find out, this segment offers up a good time to get in a short break before the grand finale.

After much debate, I decided on the Foxy Folksy version of Ginataang Bilo Bilo, but as you will see, I ended up deviating a bit based on the ingredients I bought.

The final product, given its thumbs up by a couple of
colleagues who would know best (photo by @arnellmischief)
(Adapted from the Foxy Folksy’s Ginataang Bilo Bilo recipe)
Rice Flour Dough Balls
2 cups glutinous rice flour
1 cup water
Tubers and Fresh Fruit
1 large Sweet Potato
1 large Horn Plantain
2 small Hawaiian Plantains
3 small Purple Yams
Other Fruit
1 1/2 cups of Jackfruit (Langka) (see below for more details)
Sago Pearls
1 ½ cup cooked tapioca pearls
Base Stew
2 cans (13.5 oz/400ml) coconut milk
2-3 cups water
1 cup sugar

1) Add glutinous rice flour to a bowl, add water, and mix with fork until combined. Roll into balls approximately 3/4″ in diameter and set aside. (Note: my family kept the rolled balls as is, but I added in some extracts such as Ube and Pandan to add color.  If you wish to do this, divide the dough into the number of colors you wish and mix in the extracts in those separate containers.)

2) Peel the tubers and plantains, dice into 1/2″ to 3/4″ chunks, and set aside. (Note: I also had taro, but after seeing how much material I had in total from the other diced plantains and tubers, I decided to leave it out.  My spouse also saw that if taro is undercooked, it can cause stomach upset, so that added some confidence in my decision.  I’ll explore adding taro on the next go around at this recipe.)

3) Jackfruit (Langka) – regardless if you use fresh or canned langka you should cut the fruit into into narrow inch to inch-and-a-half long strips and keep this separate from the rest of the ingredients (more on this later.)

4) Sago Pearls – you can buy pre-cooked pearls (it certainly makes the going easier), but my spouse bought the raw pearls.  If you go that route, follow the instructions on the packet – mine required adding slightly less than a cup of the raw pearls (to get the required volume) into vigorously boiling water, simmer under cover for 15 minutes (with occasional stirring), and then turning off the heat to sit for another 15 minutes (enough time to sit back for a bit and catch yourself a break.)  Then, use a strainer to separate the sago from the hot water.  I found out that the pearls will stick together if you leave them in the strainer, but they will separate when you add them into the Ginataang stew.

5) Cooking the Stew – Pour the water, sugar and coconut milk into a large pot and bring to a boil.  Once the mixture is boiling, add the diced tubers and boil for about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Next, add in the plantains and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Next, add in the glutinous rice balls and bring mixture to a simmer for about five minutes.

6) Finishing the Stew – Next, you will add the pre-cooked sago pearls.  If you have fresh jackfruit, add them into the mix here as well and simmer until the jackfruit is cooked through (approximately 5 minutes).  If you have bought the canned jackfruit in the heavy syrup, wait until the five minute simmering period is over and then add the canned jackfruit strips as the mixture is cooling down (I found that adding them in at the same time as the sago made the jackfruit a little mushy.)

7) Serving the Stew – Ginataang Halo Halo is a dish you can serve warm from the pot or cold after refrigeration (I actually prefer it cold myself.) Store in the refrigerator afterwards. Ginataang Halo Halo can also be reheated in a pot or in the microwave.

8) Final Thoughts – The sago pearls my spouse bought are the mini-spheres you might find in a tapioca pudding., and you’ll find these small spheres in many versions of this dessert. However, the version I grew up with had slightly larger sago spheres, and that’s what I’d probably aim for in a future version.  But in reality, it’s all about your preferences.

Alternately, you could probably add in some Nata de Coco cubes (a common ingredient in the summer version of Halo Halo) if you didn’t want to deal with preparing the sago. But like the canned jackfruit, I would add it in after the cooking is done and the mixture has cooled a bit.

Also, I noticed a slight difference in the glutinous rice ball texture.  It may have been due to the extracts, but I’m thinking that it was more due to the brand of rice flour.  My family grew up with Mochiko as the de facto rice flour; despite its labeling as “sweet rice flour”, Mochiko isn’t actually all that sweet compared to regular rice flour. However, I think it does give a slightly more toothy texture to the rice balls when the stewing is complete.  I think here it’s more a matter of preferred texture versus actual taste difference.

Finally, a little additional note about the canned jackfruit.  The heavy syrup does pick up a little of the jackfruit flavor, and mixing in a little bit into the mixture post-cooking (about 1/8th of a cup) added in a nice little tinge of that tropical fruit flavor. So if you’re feeing adventurous, you might want to cut the sugar and water and substitute an equal amount of heavy syrup when starting the stew (I’m planning to try the next time around myself to see how it goes.)

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