Not Your Mama’s Halo Halo: Chef Carl Mandrique On Reinventing Filipino Food

Not Your Mama’s Halo Halo: Chef Carl Mandrique On Reinventing Filipino Food

Like many Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, halo halo is one of my all-time favourite desserts. Halo halo literally means “mix mix” in Tagalog, and it is THE dessert of the Philippines. 

It likely originated from the Japanese dessert kakigori, a delicious treat served with shaved ice and sweet beans, introduced before the Japanese occupation of WWII. But Filipinos quickly adopted the dessert and added their own flair - with ube jam, ube ice cream, and even delicious leche flan (Filipino sweet custard) entering in as prime ingredients. Now it’s become the most iconic Filipino dessert, and for good reason!

Halo Halo
Halo halo is a shaved ice dessert served with condensed milk and a mix of sweet toppings. It definitely earns its name as “mix mix”! Photo credit Pittsburgh Magazine

Jerome and I love halo halo so much that we actually took a 40 minute cab ride (twice!) to get some when we were in the Philippines last year!

So when we decided to host a Cambio Market pop-up for the holidays, we knew it had to feature the festive and colourful halo halo, but we also wanted something totally unique and different. We had worked with Carl Mandrique, chef and owner of Merienda, at our previous Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines event in July and instinctively we knew he could bring our vision to life.

Merienda is a Filipino fusion snackeria specializing in street food and pub fare that’s been reinvented from traditional Filipino dishes. When Carl told us he had a recipe for deep-fried halo halo that would be perfect for Toronto’s chilly winters, we were sold.

We chatted with Carl about our  Fair Trade Fashion + Halo Halo Holiday Pop-Up, his inspiration behind Merienda, and what we can expect from this delicious deep-fried halo halo!

Carl from Merienda
Carl Mandrique, chef and owner of Merienda, and his team. Photo by Kevin Ramos.

1. What's your earliest memory eating halo halo and what did you think of it?

I'll be honest I don't remember my earliest memory of eating Halo Halo but it was definitely when I was a kid in the Philippines. It was probably love at first sight and the most refreshing experience one could ever have on a hot summer day in the Philippines. The shaved ice with all these goodies in between topped off with a lovely scoop of Ube ice cream and sometimes a slice of leche flan were all enough to get me hooked. I remember sometimes that I would eat it so fast the I would get a brain freeze and would have to chill out before I dig in again. Nevertheless, I will always be in love with Halo Halo.

2. Tell us about Merienda and what it stands for. What inspired you to create Merienda?

Merienda is a Spanish based word meaning meal in between meals. And in Filipino Culture Merienda is taken seriously and enjoyed throughout the day. Merienda can be comprised of many different dishes from savory to sweet and heavy to one-biters.

Carl from Merienda
Carl preparing his hit dish Filipino kinilaw (a raw seafood dish similar to ceviche) with crispy cassava chips. Photo by Kevin Ramos.

The inspiration behind Merienda is two fold. Toronto's bustling food scene and culture has been a consistent inspiration for new dishes and flavors. At the time I started Merienda, I felt Filipino food was not being represented properly or living up to its full potential. Filipino food has consistently been making waves in the food scene and I feel like I have been able to make my contribution through my own creative ways. Receiving the love and support I have to this day helps to keep me going.

3. How did you start cooking? Did you always know you wanted to make Filipino food?

I started cooking as a chore. As a kid both my parents worked full time and me and my brother would arrive home earlier than them after school. Me, being the eldest child, my mother first taught me how to make rice (or saing) when I was around 10 or 11 yrs old so that we they got home there would be fresh hot rice ready for dinner.

The older I got, the more responsibilities I would have in the kitchen such as mise en place, defrosting meat, clearing the dishwasher and eventually cooking dinner. At this point, it was not a real passion but it made me enjoy food more and understand the value and effort of making a dish. It was only until recently when I moved to Toronto that I was more inspired to cook Filipino food.

Merienda’s Deep-Fried Halo Halo
Merienda’s Deep-Fried Halo Halo - traditional halo halo ingredients wrapped in a lumpia wrapper and deep-fried! 

4. We're excited to try your new take on halo halo! Where did you get inspiration for your deep-fried version?

I’m glad you're excited because I think it will be amazing. I am usually one to always think out of the box and try something new. All my friends know me as someone who will eat anything and everything at least once.

My inspiration actually came from the carnival or fair eats. Seeing vendors deep fry ice cream, mars bars, and butter made me realize deepfrying is another method to showcase a dish. I then hear about a deep fried halo halo in the Philippines which I soon discovered was more of an empanada style dish (empanada is a baked or deep fried pastry usually stuffed with meat or veggies). I thought it was a bit weird when they put sticky rice in it so I decided to try my own version which I think will work great here in Toronto.

Merienda’s pork tocino slider with ube yam fries!
Merienda’s pork tocino slider with ube yam fries! 

5. What other unique foods have you served in the past?

The list of unique dishes I want to make far exceeds the ones I’ve actually created! However what I have made so far are sinigang fish tacos, ube fries (fan favorite), adobo chicken and waffles, kare kare sliders, mechado boats, kinilaw with cassava chips. and a deconstructed lumpia. I have also made my own version of sisig which I plan to showcase a soon :)

Halo Halo Holiday Popup
Read a recap of our Halo Halo Holiday Popup that occured on November 18th and November 19th 2017.

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and

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