Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ginataang Halo-Halo:
Sweet Coconut Milk Stew to Comfort the Heart & Soul

According to Merriam-Webster, comfort food is "food prepared in a traditional style" with "nostalgic or sentimental appeal."  Often connected with our childhood and/or the culture we were raised in, comfort food can be associated with a sense of security,  connection, and satisfaction and is consumed either in efforts to balance negative emotions or to pique positive emotions.  It would be an understatement to say that my diet has undergone a radical upheaval in the last 6 years.  I often look back in shock at the foods I use to put in my body - it seriously boggles my mind.  But as the saying goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," and for the foods that epitomize comfort for me, that is most definitely true.

Today's recipe is for a classic Filipino dessert that is pretty darn near the top of my comfort food list.  And as it is naturally gluten-free and vegan, chances are good that it will remain there.  A rich and sweet coconut milk stew that traditionally involves yams, squash, jackfruit, banana, and tapioca, it seems to disable all ability for me to tell when I'm full.  I will eat bowl after bowl of it, and it always brings me to a place of contentment, memories of fading Summer sunlight, the smell of cut grass and the purr of crickets, parents laughing as they play Mahjong,  sweaty smiles and prolonged hugs as we tried to make the day last just a little bit longer so goodbye could remain in the distance.  Popular in the summer, I associate it with celebrations like graduations, weddings, reunions, and birthdays - times when the irreplaceable beauty of family and friends becomes crystal clear.

A beauty that no photo can ever do justice to.  A comfort that cannot be put into words.  Intangible faith that everything will be okay, regardless of the challenges and sorrows that confront us or the distances that separate us.

That is exactly what this dish embodies for me.

Ginataang Halo-Halo (Sweet Coconut Milk Stew with Yams, Jackfruit, and Tapioca)
Gluten-Free & Vegan

Active Prep Time:  5-10 minutes
Inactive Prep Time:  none
Cooking Time:  30-45 minutes
Yield:  4 to 6 servings

(1) 13.5 fl oz can of full fat organic coconut milk
1 whole star anise
1 c filtered water

2 c (about 1 lb) large cubes peeled sweet potato, butternut squash, and/or yam
1/4-1/3 c uncooked small tapioca pearls 
1/3 teaspoon salt

2-4 tablespoons coconut palm sugar
2/3 c (about 1 medium or 2 small) sliced banana
1/2 c sliced jackfruit

What you'll need:  cutting board, vegetable peeler, chef knife, measuring cup, medium saucepan/pot, large spoon

1.  Combine coconut milk, star anise, and water and bring to a gentle boil.  Keep an eye on this part - a prolonged aggressive boil can break the coconut milk and cause it to separate, which is not terribly pretty nor palatable.
2.  Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and add cubed sweet potato/squash/yam, tapioca pearls, and salt.  For a thicker stew, add closer to 1/3 cup tapioca pearls, and for a thinner stew, closer to 1/4 cup.  Stirring occasionally, cook for 17-20 minutes, or until the tubers are nearly fork tender and the tapioca pearls are partially translucent.  
3.  Add sugar, banana, and jackfruit and allow to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.  You want everything to be cooked through but you'd also like to avoid everything becoming mushy to the point of falling apart.  If you need to add more water to loosen the stew, make sure it is hot water to keep the cooking temperature more consistent.
4.  Serve warm or chilled - it's delicious either way.  

What a palette: Okinawan purple, Garnet yam, and Strawberry bananas.

Tapioca pearls, aka sago in the Philippines.

Ready for the rest of the fixins'.

Canned jackfruit and palm seed hearts, too.  Why not?

Ready to enjoy.

Traditionally, purple yams and butternut squash are used, so if you have access to both (particularly the purple), I highly recommend it.  I was lucky enough to come across some beautiful Okinawan purples at the Asian grocer, which I combined with Garnet yams.  But if one or both are not readily available, feel free to substitute an equal amount of sweet potato, squash, or yam of choice.  And regarding jackfruit (also known as langka), it is a fruit that I find hard to describe with references to any fruits common to the U.S.  Bright yellow, sticky sweet and fragrant, with a characteristic fibrous meaty texture, it is a staple in many Asian countries.  You can find it canned in syrup at most Asian grocers, and if the season's right, fresh as well. 

Fresh jackfruit at a street vendor in Tagaytay, Philippines.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do - the grounding fragrance and flavor of star anise, the contrast of textures and different sweetnesses, and the stick-to-your-bones nature of coconut milk and tapioca - so good and so comforting.  I won't go into details here just yet, but with everything that's going on in my life and in the life of my family, comfort is definitely something we all need right now.  

The irreplaceable beauty of family and friends - savor it.  


  1. Hi Jonathan!
    Oh, I don't like anise, but I did like some of the food when I visited the Philippines. I really like the smiley people there most of all!
    Great food photos!

    1. The smiley people and the hospitality, regardless if they did or didn't know you - that is something I am truly looking forward to experiencing again when I return to the Philippines in September. Regarding the anise, it's totally optional, but I am a lover of the spice. Thanks for reading and sharing your comment!

  2. I'm in the same boat with you when it comes to ginataan. There is hardly a time where I can refuse a bowlful of that goodness. Although, there have been a handful of times where I've had to sadly decline because some of the ingredients had artificial coloring or 'fake' ube flavoring. =0

    My favorite variety of ginataan would probably be ginataan halo-halo, but I really enjoy it when there are bilo-bilo/tambong (balls of unsweetened mochi ( round sweet rice balls) in it. When properly cooked, they are like little fluffy and chewy clouds in your mouth. It's definitely a texture that most people from the West may not have an affinity for, but for me, it's like heaven in concert with the sweet coconut milk,ube/yams and fruit.

    The star anise could be an optional addition, but I've always like the taste of anise, fennel and licorice; so I would add it to my personal batch.

    The cool thing about making ginataan, is that with a few mere changes you can turn it into a savory dish. Since, I am a polyglot, a language lesson always manages to rear its head into whatever I'm doing and for this instance I'm going to explain that the term 'Ginataan' simply refers to the fact that something is cooking with 'Gata,' which is Tagalog for Coconut milk. So if somebody tells you that they're going to make you 'Ginataang gulay,'; they're telling you that they're cooking 'Vegetables cooked/stewed in coconut milk.'

    Let me know if you think there'd be interest for me posting about making my Vegan versions of the aformentioned Ginataang Gulay and another famous dish 'Laing' (Dahon ng gabi sa gata/Taro leaves stewed in coconut milk). =p

    Nice nostalgic post, kuya.


    <3 Jessica

    1. Thanks, Jess! I have been thinking about making Ginataan Bilo-Bilo - I've never made bill-bilo before and as you described, when done right, they are "heaven in concert." And regarding sharing vegan ginataang gulag or Laing on your blog, I would respond with a resounding "Yes!" Especially the Laing, as I've always enjoyed that whenever you make it. But if time will allow, then why not do both?

  3. I love how every Filipino I know makes halo-halo different. It never fails. I go home for a visit and there are many different kinds of halo-halo for me to gobble up. It was the one thing I knew I could eat safely when I was home last year and did so with gusto. :D

  4. I can totally relate to the "gusto," Debi. I could eat ginataan every day, every meal, and not get sick of it. And as you point out, beyond overeating, my chances of getting sick from it are slim to none. Love naturally gluten-free, vegan Filipino food!


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