Ice Cream/Frozen Desserts

12 Filipino Desserts You Need to Know About (& Try!)

August 18, 2016

When chocolate rice is a breakfast staple and sugary cheese bread makes an appearance at merienda (snack time), it’s hard to know where everyday Filipino food ends and dessert begins. (Spoiler: There’s no clear line, we Filipinos will happily eat these all day every day.)

Photo by Celeste Noche

But for purposes of this article, I’m defining dessert as something you’d usually eat at the end of an enormous family dinner (you know, the buffets where there’s so much food that there isn’t room for anyone to actually sit at the table anymore, where aunts tell you simultaneously how fat you’ve gotten while also insisting you eat more, and where karaoke is happening in the background).

Many of these desserts use rice flour—a staple of the 7000 islands that compose the Philippines—along with tropical fruit like coconut, saba bananas (cooking bananas), and ube (purple yam). And while there are traditional methods and countless variations of each, the most Filipino approach of all would be to make these with whatever you have, however you can, and to share with everyone—even if they claim they’re too full to eat another bite.

1. Halo-Halo ("hall-o hall-o")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Perhaps the most well-known of Filipino desserts, halo-halo translates to “mix mix” and is just that: a jumble of toppings that you literally mix up to eat. Its origins can be traced back to various Japanese shaved ice desserts, but now halo-halo is a menu staple at most Filipino restaurants (Anthony Bourdain even tried some at the Filipino chain Jollibee in Los Angeles!).

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Top Comment:
“Carioca is a mochi like doughnut, dough made from sweet rice flour and coconut milk is fried and then covered in a warm caramel like palm sugar syrup. Sometimes grated coconut is sprinkled on top. Seriously my fave and when my mom makes it I can't stop eating them. Also I don't know if this is just my mom or a regional thing, but she will freeze a brick of cream cheese until firm and grate it into her Buko making it more like a cheese-cake.”
— Janelle
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The combination of sweet toppings may vary, but there is a general formula: a starchy base like boiled beans or ube; a syrupy fruit like macapuno coconut or jackfruit; a layer of jello; a layer of shaved ice; some ice cream or leche flan; and, finally, a drizzle of evaporated milk.

2. Tropical Ice Cream

Photo by Celeste Noche

In the Philippines, ice cream peddlers sell tiny cones for the U.S. equivalent of 45 cents. While you won’t find one of them in the U.S., brands like Magnolia and Mitchell’s import or make their own versions of Filipino flavors that are often unavailable at regular American markets. These tropical flavors come in an array of colors and include mango, avocado, jackfruit, ube, multiple kinds of coconut (buko, macapuno, and buko pandan—young coconut, matured sweetened coconut, and young coconut flavored with the tropical, vanilla-esque pandan leaf, respectively), and cheese. Yes, cheese!

3. Ube Halaya ("oo-beh ha-lay-ah")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Ube, often confused with its cousin taro, is a sweet purple yam native to the Philippines. Ube halaya is both a traditional dessert in itself and also a base for many other Filipino treats like halo-halo, ube bread, and ube ice cream. To make ube halaya, the ube is boiled, grated, then mixed with sugar and milk until it thickens into a viscous pudding. It can then be eaten with a spoon or in small chewy bite-sized pieces, depending on how the cook has prepared it.

4. Palitaw ("pah-lee-ta-ow")

Photo by Celeste Noche

These sweet, flat rice cakes are made of only five ingredients: water, rice flour, coconut, sesame seeds, and sugar. Their name comes from their cooking process: “Litaw” means “to float,” and that’s exactly how you know they’ve finished cooking. Although they are traditionally made with home-ground sticky rice, you’re more likely to find them made with factory-processed glutinous rice flour today. Water is added to glutinous rice flour and kneaded until a mochi-like consistency is formed. They’re then dropped in boiling water until they float, then scooped out and dipped with grated coconut, toasted sesame seeds, and sugar.

5. Puto and Kutsinta ("koo-chin-tuh")

Puto (on the left) and kutsinta (on the right) Photo by Celeste Noche

These bite-sized treats are both made from rice flour and steamed: The difference is that kutsinta gets its color and texture from brown sugar and lye water. While either one can be eaten for breakfast or merienda, puto is often served alongside savory dishes like dinuguan (a savory meat stew) and pancit (noodles). For dessert, puto and kutsinta are usually served together, with grated coconut or melted butter.

6. Ginatan ("gin-ah-tahn")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Ginatan is a pudding-like dessert that’s served warm. It’s typical base is made of coconut milk and rice flour, then customized with additional ingredients like mais (corn) and mungo (mung bean). The most popular version, however, is bilo bilo: Deriving from the word “bilog,” meaning, “round,” bilo bilo contains chewy rice balls mixed with cooking bananas (saba) or plantains, a root vegetable (such as ube, sweet potato, or taro), coconut milk, jackfruit, and tapioca pearls. It's among the heartier Filipino desserts and also happens to be vegan and gluten-free.

7. Leche Flan

Photo by Celeste Noche

Leche flan is one of many legacies of Spanish colonization in the Philippines from the sixteenth to late nineteenth centuries. It’s inspired by and very similar to the European crème caramel, but the Filipino version often uses sweetened condensed milk in place of regular milk. This creamy egg custard is often served with a light caramel syrup on top and prepared for special occasions.

8. Kalamay ("ka-lahm-eye")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Kalamay, meaning “sugar,” is a sticky dessert with a flavor similar to that of a coconut rice pudding. But because the sweet rice (or, more commonly, glutinous rice flour) is heated and then left to cool, the texture is chewy and dense rather than creamy and soft. Kalamay always contains coconut milk, sugar, and ground rice as its base, but it varies throughout different regions of the country: There’s peanut butter kalamay in Mindoro and green rice kalamay in Tarlac in the north, for example.

9. Turon ("tu-rohn")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Turon is a common street food made of sliced saba bananas, jackfruit, and brown sugar wrapped in a spring roll wrapper and fried. When the roll is fried, the sugar melts and seeps out, coating the wrapper in a caramel syrup. Turon can be eaten at room temperature but are best hot off the pan and served with ice cream.

10. Buko Salad ("boo-koh")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Buko salad is the Philippines’ take on fruit salad. Buko (young coconut) is mixed with condensed milk, heavy cream, and canned fruit cocktail, then chilled before serving, and it’s also common to add for fresh fruit like apples and grapes for texture. Buko salad is often more about the temperature and texture (cold and creamy) than the flavors of the fruit, making it a rich and refreshing treat in the humid climate.

11. Maruya ("mah-roo-yah")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Maruya are the Philippines’ version of banana fritters. Saba bananas are sliced and dipped in a thin, pancake-like batter, then fried and sprinkled with sugar. Although this dessert can often be found as street food, it’s commonly made at home, too. Other less traditional versions use sweet potato, coconut, or corn in place of the bananas.

12. Gulaman ("goo-lah-mahn")

Photo by Celeste Noche

Gulaman, or agar, is a type of dried seaweed used to make jellos and gelatin. The seaweed is dehydrated and sold in bars, which are then broken up and boiled in water to create the jelly. And the word "gulaman" also refers to the actual dessert that the gulaman bars are turned into.

Traditional recipes call for fruit and extracts to sweeten the otherwise-flavorless gelatin, and the finished dessert often consists of different layers of gulaman, all flavored differently. It’s common to include a layer set around fruit cocktail, a “milky” layer composed of an evaporated milk or almond jello, and an additional fruity layer on top.

This article originally appeared earlier in the summer. We're re-running it now because so many of you loved it.

32 Comments

angela September 18, 2018
best desserts ever barboy<br />
 
Monica S. June 14, 2017
Celeste, what a labor of love in making all of these. Your photos are AMAZING.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 14, 2017
thanks for recognizing the labor of love, monica! it definitely was and i'm still proud a year later :)
 
Tess February 22, 2017
Just did a search for two recipes on food52.com and came up with no matches. Unless I missed it - are these recipes available on the site? If not - it's kind of odd to offer a list without accompanying recipes.
 
Mary-Ann February 15, 2017
You hit all the best ones, Celeste!
 
Merrill S. August 19, 2016
I'd like to try every single dessert on this list. Thank you, Celeste, for such a great (and educational) article!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. September 14, 2016
Thank you, Merrill!! This was such a labor of love, I'm so happy to share it with you and the Food52 community :)
 
fwsd August 18, 2016
Parang mali ang kalamay. Biko ang tawag samin ng nasa picture, mas mukhang tikoy ang kalamay.
 
Kathie M. June 23, 2016
would agave or perhaps organic cocoanut palm sugar work as substitute? I am trying to avoid sugar period whenever possible but want to learn how to make some of these wonderful traditions for my new Filipino son-in-law as he's married a 1/2 Irish 1/2 Norwegian, my daughter?!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 26, 2016
I haven't tried making them myself but it's worth a shot! A lot of Filipino desserts are really sweet, so sugar sometimes feels unavoidable but keep us posted on how it goes!
 
Manolet A. June 11, 2016
Celeste, bakit walang suman?<br />
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 12, 2016
Kamusta ka, Manolet! Ang suman, kadalasan ay sa merienda at almusan kinakain ng aking pamilya :)
 
Anna E. June 10, 2016
Anything made with glutinous rice can be considered dessert so long as the end result is sweet. Pilipinos can make a dessert out of what Americans consider a vegetable (Avocado ice cream anyone? And who would have thought of putting corn and cheese in ice cream?) Varying regions also have a twist to each type of dessert. My aunt would make us pound cassava root after boiling it and slowly mix in sugar and coconut milk then putting it over fire again. Never knew what it was called but it is delicious! And if you really want to go all hog - wait til Christmas time when puto bungbong, espasol, bibingka, pulvoron, etc., comes in huge baskets! YUM!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 12, 2016
Agreed! It was so tough to narrow down for this feature and it was a weird conundrum where anything could be dessert but also dessert could be eaten any time of the day! Your tita's dish sounds like simple cassava cake! So many desserts, so little time.. :)
 
Joni W. June 10, 2016
These look SO yummy. Well done!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 12, 2016
Thank you sweet Joni!
 
Saoirse R. June 10, 2016
That is not Kalamay but Biko, Green Biko. :)
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
The great and complicated thing about Filipino desserts is that types, names, and versions can vary depending on the region or province. According to my mom, who was raised in Manila with grandparents from Pampanga and Ilocos, this biko pandan is a type of kalamay, with kalamay being the overall base of sweet rice or pinipig.
 
ChefJune June 10, 2016
I;m missing bibingka from your list!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
More merienda! The Filipino sweets repertoire is no joke!
 
Jane April 7, 2017
Yes, bibingka! I made bibingka in Manila years ago with friends who owned a bibingka stall. Delicious!
 
thechewinn-nova.com June 10, 2016
How about cassava cake or pudding? It is more popularly serve in gatherings here in the US than most of the desserts mentioned above and has spawned various versions.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
I talked to my mom about this, too, and she always saw it more as merienda than dessert growing up. Sounds like I may need to do a follow up!
 
milkjam June 10, 2016
Love ginatan, have not had any in years, that will have to change! What about biko?.Try to make it every year around Christmas. You list so many ideas using sweet rice flour, Thanks.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
The ginatan was actually surprisingly easy to make once I had all the ingredients! I was considering including biko but was thinking that was more like merienda. Maybe another post? :)
 
Joanne B. June 10, 2016
Thanks for creating this list!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
i'm glad you enjoyed it!
 
Geebee3 June 9, 2016
You forgot about tibok-tibok. I forget what it is called outside of Pampanga.
 
Joanne B. June 10, 2016
Maja blanca! My fave!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 10, 2016
alas, there is only so much time in a day!
 
Janelle June 9, 2016
My favorite dessert Carioca is sadly missing! Carioca is a mochi like doughnut, dough made from sweet rice flour and coconut milk is fried and then covered in a warm caramel like palm sugar syrup. Sometimes grated coconut is sprinkled on top. Seriously my fave and when my mom makes it I can't stop eating them. <br /><br />Also I don't know if this is just my mom or a regional thing, but she will freeze a brick of cream cheese until firm and grate it into her Buko making it more like a cheese-cake.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. June 9, 2016
I actually talked to my mom about including it, but she thought it was more merienda than dessert! The funny things about Filipino food are that 1) eating sweets around the clock can make it really hard to distinguish between merienda and dessert and 2) recipes really vary across regions and families :)