En route to the US last month we stopped for a few days in the Philippines. It was Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) and we were lucky enough to stay at the Medina house in Arayat, Pampanga province, a fantastic base from which to take in the small town's festivities.
We didn't go hungry that weekend. Good Friday may be meatless but its meals - in the Philippines, at least - are anything but spare. We began the day with a breakfast of champurrado (rice mixed with Philippine cacao) accompanied by salted fish (an unlikely but superb combination) and slabs of butter-slathered Medina ensaimada, an insanely rich sweet bread made with dozens of egg yolks and a ball of Dutch edam cheese. At half past noon Dave and I sat down, with a table full of Medina friends and extended family, to a feast. Struggling to pace ourselves, we worked our way through two fish dishes, crabs simmered in coconut milk, sisig puso (banana flower sauteed with vinegar), and other dishes, as well as a selection of desserts that included peak-of-ripenesss local mangoes (they rival Indian, in our opinion) and leche flan.
In the early evening I woke from a nap and stumbled into the kitchen in search of ice water. There, I was accosted by Alice, a gregarious local who lends her culinary expertise when the number of mouths to feed exceeds the reach of long-time Medina cook Lucia, her daughter, and her daughter-in-law.
'Merienda?' she proposed with a grin. (Merienda is a between-meal snack.)
Why not? True, it had been less than four hours since I rose, stuffed, from the lunch table ... but I was already long past the point of no return.
I took a seat in the cool, welcome darkness of the kitchen (Holy Week coincides with the white-hot dry season) and watched Alice assemble a glass of halo-halo, the Philippine version of the bean, milk, and crushed ice-based snacks enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia.
Compared to the multi-ingredient, luridly colored street version of halo-halo, Alice's was simple and sedate. She started with a layer of white beans, boiled and sweetened and stirred to a paste, and then added a generous layer of cream-colored halayang gatas, the ingredient that makes Kapampangan halo-halo Kapampangan. Alice had made the halayang gatas that morning, beating fatty carabao milk in a copper-brass pan with a wooden spatula over a low flame until it became thick, then adding sugar and grated rind of the dayap, a key lime-like local citrus.
After filling the glass to overflowing with crushed ice, and topping that with a bit of creamed corn, she poured on condensed milk, just enough to set the ice to melting and moisten the other ingredients.
Truth be told, I'd never been much of a fan of the region's beany iced treats. But that refreshing halo-halo, with its not-too-sweet bean paste and unctuously milky, delicately limey halayang gatas, was my watershed. (The halayang gatas appeared on its own, as a dessert, several times over the weekend. I never failed to indulge.)
I have many wonderful memories of Holy Weekend in Arayat. Alice's halo-halo is among the fondest.