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Succumb to the allure of one of Southeast Asia’s most mesmerizing cuisines with these glorious Filipino desserts, and prepare your mind, body, and soul for a sweet and savory culinary expedition of color, texture, and flavor like no other.
1 – Turon
A favorite snack amongst all the street food fare, turon are little parcels of saba (a type of banana) wrapped in spring roll pastry, sometimes including langka (ripe jackfruit) or even ube, and sweetened with brown sugar, then fried until delightfully crispy.
The process in which the food is made is an art form in itself. The blocks of panela (brown cane sugar) are melted directly in the frying oil so that when the turon are fried, they get coated in the sticky, caramelized brown sugar. This makes for a delicious merienda (afternoon snack) when roaming the streets of the Philippines.
2 – Sans Rival
Literally translating to ‘without rival’ or ‘unrivaled,’ this Filipino cake is a must-try when visiting. Originating from its French counterpart, the Dacquoise, which are baked nutty meringue layers typically made with ground almonds or hazelnuts, Filipinos adapted the dish to use toasted cashews instead.
The dish became popular in the country after many Filipino chefs and culinary students, who studied in France in the 1920s and 30s, returned home and introduced the dish to Filipino cuisine.
Once the cake has been assembled, it is finished with a layer of rich buttercream to make a sweet, nutty, and decadent cake that truly is without rivals, as its name suggests.
In fact, the dish is so popular that the Filipinos even made a snack-size version that is the size of an ice cream sandwich, which today we call silvanas or sylvanas.
Many bakeries throughout the country make this unrivaled dessert. Some even try to put their own spin on it by using different nuts, like pistachios, and adding other delicious flavors like ube and chocolate.
3 – Mamón
Mamon are one of the most popular desserts in the Philippines, renowned for their delightfully airy and fluffy texture. This delectable chiffon or sponge cake is known for its distinctive shape, courtesy of the traditional fluted cupcake tin that it is baked in.
It is topped with granulated sugar, which adds a welcome amount of sweetness and crunch to this light and airy cake.
Some variations to try from the different regions include Mamon Tostado (from the Spanish word meaning ‘toasted’), the rolled Swiss-roll type called pianonos, as well as the ladyfinger version called ‘broas’, which are sliced and toasted mamon cookies. Whichever version you try, you are in for a real Filipino treat!
4 – Leche Flan
If you’ve ever had creme brulee, then you may already be familiar with this type of custardy dessert.
While the technique used may be similar to the French crème caramel, the dessert actually takes its influence from the Roman Empire, Spain, and the USA.
Traditionally, to make this dish, Filipinos made use of shelf-stable foods like condensed milk, evaporated milk, and egg yolks to make their custard base. The base was then steamed rather than baked, like creme caramel.
If you enjoy puddings and custards, this dessert brings a glorious caramelized sugar sauce and a silky, luxurious custard together in one bite for you to enjoy.
5 – Puto
Puto are delicious dainty cakes made from rice flour and cooked by being steamed. They are usually eaten as a snack for mèrienda, or eaten with meals in place of steamed rice, most notably dinuguan (a savoury stew made with offal and pig’s blood) and pancit (stir-fried noodles).
Filipinos love their sweet and salty dishes, so you’ll often be able to find these little cakes made with cheddar cheese as well. They are made in cupcake tins and often come in a variety of flavors, like ube (purple yam), pandan, or muscovado sugar. Some Filipinos even make them with rainbow colors.
Another must-try variation of this traditional dessert to look out for is puto bumbong. To make this dish, the cakes are instead wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in bamboo (bumbong), then topped with sugar, cheese, and coconut shavings.
6 – Puto Flan or Leche Puto
A combination of the two favorites we have just looked at, puto flan or leche puto is where puto (steamed rice cakes) and leche flan (creme caramel) are made in the same tin to make 2 desserts in one!
An easy dessert to make, puto flan is made by pouring puto batter into the bottom of the tin and topping it with custard. When they are cooked, the two liquids, due to the heat, magically switch places, so that the custard instead sits at the bottom of the tin, and the pair fuse in a sumptuously delicious marriage.
Puto flan comes in a variety of flavors, including ube, pandan, and even chocolate. This is without doubt one of the easiest and tastiest desserts throughout the Philippines to try.
7 – Ensaymada
Similar to a brioche, Filipino ensaymada is heavily influenced by its Mallorcan cousin, ensaïmada, from Spain. The Spanish ensaïmada de Mallorca is made like a brioche but instead uses pork lard.
The Filipinos adapted it over the centuries to make it one of their most well-known and popular desserts. This buttery yet fluffy bread is usually topped with buttercream, sugar, and shredded cheese to make for a sweet and salty combination.
Other flavors of ensaymada you can find include salted egg yolk and ube, among others. This bread is typically eaten with hot chocolate or coffee to make for a delicious afternoon snack.
8 – Biko (Kakanin)
Biko, otherwise known as kakanin, is a sticky rice cake dessert made from glutinous rice, coconut milk, and dark brown sugar, sometimes garnished with toasted coconut shavings. They are usually baked in pans lined with banana leaves, giving the dish a distinct and unique earthy flavor that you can’t find anywhere else.
Locals eat biko all year round, but the dish is especially popular during the holidays as it is believed consuming it will bring good luck.
For those with a keen eye, look out for a variation of biko known as suman. This rice cake dessert is made with white sugar, and each cake is wrapped individually before being steamed.
9 – Sapin-Sapin
Sapin-sapin is a distinctly colorful dessert that quite literally means ‘layers’. As the name suggests, it is a layered sticky rice cake dessert made with glutinous rice flour, coconut milk, sugar, and food coloring.
One cake usually consists of three layers – purple for ube, yellow or orange for jackfruit, and white for a savory, unsweetened layer. Some bakeries will switch in a green pandan layer instead of the white layer, depending on preference. The cake is then usually garnished with shaved coconut for texture.
10 – Buko Salad
With an abundance of coconut trees across the archipelago, a list of Philippine desserts wouldn’t be complete without at least one dessert containing buko, meaning ‘coconut.’
The Filipinos use the flesh of the young coconut to make a sweet dessert consisting of buko strips, sweetened condensed milk, whipping cream, and various ingredients like fruit cocktail, nata de coco (coconut gel), and sometimes chunks of cheese and raisins.
Some Filipino households like to add pandan extract and sago (mini tapioca balls) to make a green buko pandan salad.
There’s no denying this is a delightfully cold and refreshing dessert, often enjoyed during hot summer days, or eaten beach-side after a day in the sun and sea.
11 – Cassava Cake
When cassava was brought to the Philippines in the 16th century by Latin Americans, the natives quickly incorporated it into their cooking and baking. Arguably, one of the best dishes to come from the introduction of this ingredient was cassava cake.
The cake is made from a mixture of cassava, coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, baked into a soft and wholesome custard-like cake.
Some bakers use larger amounts of cassava to make a richer and denser cake, while others use less to make it lighter. The cake is finished with a sticky caramelized topping that is baked separately from its base, then added at the end.
12 – Halo-Halo
Traditionally served in a tall milkshake cup, halo-halo is a shaved ice dessert layered with a variety of sweet toppings. Once assembled, evaporated milk is poured over the top before everything is mixed together.
Its name literally means ‘mix-mix’, which is very apt considering that, firstly, all the ingredients are mixed together, and two, there are a wide range of textures and flavors to enjoy within this refreshing dessert.
From ube ice cream to leche flan, sweetened red beans, coconut gel, and pinipig (toasted popped rice), the flavor combinations are endless.
Many Filipinos also request it with macapuno (coconut sport), shredded young coconut, sago, saba (banana), and jackfruit. This summertime favorite is sure to put a smile on your face!
13 – Mango Float
If you haven’t tried a Philippine mango, you’re missing out on one of the juiciest fruits in the world. This dessert showcases mango in the simplest yet most glorious form.
Essentially an icebox cake, it consists of fresh mango layered with whipped cream, sweetened condensed milk, and ladyfingers, although graham crackers are more commonly used nowadays.
The mango float is then either chilled until the crackers soften or it is frozen to make a layered ice cream-like dessert. A relatively easy dessert to make, this Filipino classic really does put the spotlight on one of the country’s most beloved and delicious fruits.
14 – Brazo de Mercedes
Throughout the Philippines, you’ll also hear Brazo De Mercedes referred to by its Spanish name ‘Mercedes’ Arm’, meaning ‘Nuedras Señora de las Mercedes’ or ‘Arm of Our Lady of Mercy’.
Brazo de Mercedes is a type of pianono, or swiss roll cake. The dish is unique because the cake is made without using any flour and incorporates whole eggs into the mixture
Rather than a conventional sponge cake, it has a soft, pillowy meringue base, with a sweet and viscous custard filling center. The cake is finished with a dusting of icing sugar before serving.
15 – Ube Halaya
If you’re familiar with Asian cuisine, you’ll know ube (purple yam) is used in a lot of Asian desserts these days, and for good reason. Native to South America, Africa, and other parts of southeastern parts of Asia, ube is most popularly used in the Philippines, and is not to be confused with taro.
Its rich, sweet, and earthy taste makes it very different from other yams, while its purple color makes for a vibrant dessert in whatever way you use it. Halaya takes from the Spanish word, ‘jalea’, meaning ‘jam.’
Hence, ube halaya is essentially a jam or conserve style serving of the yam. It is made by boiling and mashing the yams, then sweetening the mixture to form a paste.
It can be used in a variety of ways, including flavorings for cakes, ice creams, custards, and other Filipino desserts.
16 – Egg Pie
As the name suggests, Filipino egg pie is an eggy custard pie with a browned meringue topping. The custard is made from whole eggs, evaporated milk, and condensed milk. From there, egg whites are whipped separately and then folded into the custard base.
The whipped egg whites float to the top, and when baked, they caramelize to form the dish’s signature browned topping. Egg pie is served by many bakeries and stores across the Philippines and can be eaten as merienda (afternoon snack) or even as part of breakfast.
17 – Ginataang Bilo-Bilo
With coconut trees being so abundant in the Philippines, it’s no surprise that coconuts and coconut milk are so common in Filipino cooking. Hence the term ‘ginataan’ (sometimes spelled ‘guinataan’) refers to anything that has been cooked with gata or coconut milk.
Ginataan has many variants, but its most popular one is made with bilo-bilo, or little glutinous rice balls. It is combined with gata, jackfruit, saba (banana), cassava, and sago or tapioca pearls to make a flavorsome dessert with a soup-like consistency that can be served hot or chilled.
18 – Bibingka
Bucking the trend of Filipino desserts using glutinous rice flour, conventional bibingka instead uses regular rice flour in its recipe (bar bibingka royal, a variation popular in Ilocos).
This savory dessert is traditionally lined with banana leaves and baked in a terra cotta oven, then topped with salted eggs and shredded cheese before serving.
Fluffier and more cake-like than a sticky rice cake, bibingka is simple, wholesome, and great for those who prefer their desserts on the savory side.
19 – Sorbetes
A popular dish of Filipino street food fare, especially after a long day at school or work, sorbetes is a refreshing and quick handheld treat.
Essentially it is a kind of sorbet, but is instead made with coconut milk or water buffalo (carabao) milk. Due to the milk used and the churning process involved, the dish has a grainier texture than a conventional sorbet.
Often jokingly referred to as ‘dirty ice cream’ because it is sold on the streets, sorbetes is still one of the most well-known desserts in the Philippines, partially down to the vendors, called ‘sorbeteros’, who often deck out their carts with a multitude of colors, making them very easy to spot.
Sorbetes come in a variety of flavors, but the most popular are chocolate, mango, coconut, and ube, while plenty of daring and unconventional flavors are out there, including cheese.
20 – Taho
At the crack of dawn, you’ll often hear the different vendors walking down the streets to sell their taho which they carry on their backs, yelling ‘PANDESAL!’ to let you know that they’re selling freshly baked bread, or ‘TAHOOOO!’ so you know to run down the street to catch them so you can grab your fill.
Taho is traditionally made from silken tofu and is layered with brown sugar syrup and sago or tapioca pearls. It is served as a snack but is most often eaten at breakfast. Nowadays, the syrups come in a variety of flavors, including strawberry, ube, and chocolate.
21 – Champorado
Though classified as a dessert, champorado is mainly served at breakfast. It gets its name from the Spanish champurrado, which is a warm chocolate drink that is thick enough for dipping churros in. Filipinos adapted it and added glutinous rice to make a type of rice pudding.
It is commonly served hot with evaporated milk to make it creamier. It makes use of little blocks of tablea or tsokolate which literally translates to ‘chocolate’, which are dissolved in water or milk to cook the glutinous rice.
Filipino Desserts Summary
If you love your desserts creative, colorful, and truly mouthwatering, these authentic Filipino desserts really do have everything to give you a mind-blowing culinary experience quite like no other.
A huge array of wonderous ingredients make their way into traditional Filipino desserts, from grated coconut to purple yam jam, making for some utterly mesmerizing dishes that wow and awe with their textures, colors, and combinations.
Be it in decadent restaurants or amid the glorious aromas and sounds of the street food markets, be bold when traveling through the Philippines, and try as many of these desserts as you can. You truly are in for an experience you will never forget.
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Contributor: Adrienne Panis is a creative culinary professional and recipe developer from the Philippines with experience working with the likes of the Food Network and Netflix.
Images licensed via Shutterstock