Filipinos have the sweetest of sweet tooths in Southeast Asia. That’s not just a guess, that’s backed up by research: in a comparison of preferred sweetness levels between countries (measured in Brix), Filipinos go for a diabetes-triggering 14 Brix (or 14 grams of sugar per 100 grams of solution), compared to Japan’s 9 Brix, the U.S.’ 11 Brix, and Mexico’s 12 Brix.
Maybe that’s why Filipinos don’t consider any local meal complete without dessert—and sometimes, they eat it first!
Filipino desserts use what nature has granted the Philippines in abundance, so expect sugarcane, rice, and coconuts to make frequent appearances.
Filipinos only started using ice in desserts when the Americans introduced refrigeration in the early 1900s, but quickly took to the ingredient to beat the Philippines’ hot weather.
Japanese entrepreneurs prior to World War II sold mitsumame (a traditional Japanese bean-based dessert) using local monggo beans and shaved ice. The resulting mongo con hielo could be ordered from Japanese sorbeterias (ice cream shops) with a dash of evaporated milk and your choice of sweet add-ons.
This dessert evolved into the halo-halo we know today: a rich blend of shaved ice, evaporated milk, fruits in syrup (bananas and jackfruit), ube halaya (more on this dessert below), mung beans, chewy sweet palm, and the occasional scoop of ice cream.
The name literally translates to "mix-mix" in Filipino: you're supposed to mix all the ingredients together into a soupy, creamy mess before tucking in!
The starchy purple root we call “ube” (pronounced oo-bay) has lately become a trendy foodstuff in the West, but Filipinos have long valued it for its bright purple color and its down-to-earth deliciousness that translates well into cakes, pies, candies, and ice cream.
Filipinos swear by the dessert in its original form—a mashed and sweetened mass called ube halaya. Ube root is peeled, mashed, and mixed with condensed milk or sweetened coconut milk, then thickened over heat. You can eat this on its own, or use it as an ingredient in other desserts like halo-halo.
A congregation of nuns in the mountain city of Baguio make what is arguably the best ube halaya in the country; long lines form in the morning to grab a limited daily supply.
“Kakanin” covers a surprisingly wide range of sweetened rice-based desserts, usually found in its different forms in morning markets all over the Philippines.
There’s suman, or whole glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, wrapped in palm leaves, and steamed until done; puto, a steamed rice-flour cake that can be paired with savory foods like batchoy and the pigs’ blood stew dinuguan; and kutsinta, a rice cake treated with lye to create a bouncy pudding with a brown-yellow color.
Some types of kakanin are made for the Christmas season—like puto bumbong, a purplish rice cake sold outside Filipino churches during the Advent early morning mass known as misa de gallo.
Many Southeast Asian foodstuffs have their roots in the Fujian Chinese immigrant community, whose members have been firmly integrated in urban communities around the region. The Fujianese brought lumpia and hopia, too—the latter being a pastry filled with either mung beans or winter melon paste. (Yogyakarta in Indonesia has a similar dessert, called bakpia.)
Hopia was on the brink of sliding into cliche, when Gerry Chua, a Chinese-Filipino entrepreneur, added new life to the pastry by introducing an ube-filled version. The new take was an instant (and durable) hit.
To celebrate his success, Chua’s shop Eng Bee Tin uses ube-purple liberally in its marketing materials—even on its local (sponsored) fire trucks!
On any city street corner, you’ll find carts of street food selling fried treats on a stick—fishball and squidball (fish paste shaped into spheres), kentekoy (batter-covered quail eggs), and the sticky-sweet banana-cue.
The name is a portmanteau of bananas (in this case, the Filipino saba plantain) and barbecue (traditional Filipino roast pork skewers). The saba is skewered on a bamboo stick, coated in granulated sugar, then dunked into searing hot oil.
The deep-fry instantly caramelizes the sugar and cooks the banana interior; the result is a gooey-sticky-crunchy dessert that’s a Filipino street-food classic.
Many panaderia (bakery) favorites represent Asian adaptations of Spanish traditional pastries, probably introduced by homesick friars hankering for a taste of Spain, but made to use locally-available ingredients.
Filipino ensaymada descends from the ensaïmada Mallorquina, a traditional pastry of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Where the original uses pork lard-infused dough, Filipino ensaymada uses a butter-rich brioche.
Topped with a slathering of butter, granulated white sugar, and cheese (and the occasional salted duck egg), ensaymada is usually served with hot chocolate. Many modern ensaymada brands go overboard on the topping—you can barely see the bread for all the grated cheese and sugar heaped on top!
Brazo de Mercedes
The Spanish dessert brazo de gitano evolved in the Philippines to the local brazo de mercedes, a meringue sheet spread with a thick custard, coiled into a roulade and sprinkled with a layer of confectioners’ sugar.
Brazo de mercedes fans love the competing textures of the fluffy meringue and sticky custard, putting this dessert in near-constant demand for parties and Philippines fiestas.
Thanks to its lack of wheat, brazo de mercedes is also a favorite for dessert-lovers looking for a gluten-free option.
What caramel creme is to the West, leche flan is to the Philippines: a silky custard cooked slowly in a traditional llanera (leche flan mold), then drenched in caramel just before it’s served.
The Filipino love for custards and other egg yolk-related desserts may have come from necessity. When the Spanish were building churches, they used egg whites (lots of ‘em) to make the mortar. Instead of just chucking the leftover yolks in the river, Filipina cooks decided to turn them into a wide range of egg-based desserts, leche flan being one of the most popular.
Leche flan is a favorite dessert in Filipino restaurants; it’s also a classic ingredient in halo-halo.
Many iconic Filipino desserts actually hail from the foodie province of Pampanga, where an abundance of dairy (from water buffaloes) and rice allowed its “Kapampangan” natives to experiment and profit from the results.
Take sans rival, a derivative of the French dessert dacquoise indigenized to use local ingredients like cashews. Sans rival consists of cashew meringue, buttercream, and chopped cashews, layered into a delicious, chewy treat.
While you can find sans rival all over Pampanga (and the Philippines, for that matter), you can’t go wrong sourcing from the original; Ocampo-Lansang Delicacies in Santa Rita town has been making sans rival since the 1920s.
Sold by roving street vendors carrying their wares on poles, taho is the Philippines’ tastiest sweet street food: a tofu-based pudding topped with chewy sago pearls and brown sugar syrup.
Filled with protein, carbs, and sugar, taho is an instant energy boost for tired workers and a delicious break for kids, all for less than 10 Philippine pesos a cup.
Mall stores now serve premium versions of taho, with flavors ranging from ube to chocolate to melon. In the mountainous north of Luzon, taho sellers in the city of Baguio top the dessert with strawberry syrup instead (owing to the surplus of strawberries grown in the region).