For many Catholics, the month of March heralds the arrival of the Lenten season. As a child, much like any kid with a sweet tooth and an aversion to vegetables, I used to dread the occasion since it meant abstaining from meat and certain indulgences like chocolate desserts. Now that I’m older, I’ve come to appreciate the quiet solemnity that accompanies Lenten rituals, but finding my way around the prescribed diet remains tricky. Puberty didn’t exactly eradicate my sweet tooth and aversion to vegetables.
Fortunately, our local street food presents the perfect solution to my peckish needs this time of year. Made with the nutritious meat substitute that is tofu while at the same time being sweet enough to classify as a dessert, a cup of taho is remarkably simple, but hits that proverbial spot like nothing else can.
What Exactly is Taho?
Composed of tofu, brown sugar syrup, and sago pearls, taho is a staple comfort food that can be found all over the country. Apart from being a cheap (a cup won’t set you back by more than PHP 10 or so) and satisfying snack, it’s also considered to be a great breakfast option, especially since most vendors prepare their goods before dawn.
Fresh, silken tofu is the preferred base, its texture similar to that of a very fine panna cotta. The soybean custard is then dressed with arnibal, which is brown sugar that’s been caramelized into a syrup and sometimes flavored with vanilla. Heaping spoonfuls of translucent, gummy sago pearls crown each serving, though customers can also opt to leave them out.
Journey from China to the Philippines
Unlike a lot of our local delicacies, taho is usually pegged as a Chinese invention that predates the Spanish occupation. How it came to be, however, depends on who you ask (and how fanciful your imagination might be). Legend claims that the tofu base originated sometime during the Han Dynasty, as a result of Prince Liu An’s failed attempts to conjure up some immortality pills by mixing up soybeans and bamboo piths (although with tofu’s strong anti-carcinogenic properties towards breast and uterine cancer, one could argue that he came pretty darn close).
The high-calcium content of the raw salt curdled the soybean mixture, resulting in the tofu’s gel-like form.
The more pragmatic version states that tofu was first produced when a cook accidentally mixed in a handful of impure sea salt to a slurry of boiled, ground soybeans while preparing a savory soy milk soup. The high-calcium content of the raw salt curdled the soybean mixture, resulting in a gel-like tofu form. This account also credits the Mongolians for discovering the process, with their Chinese neighbors eventually applying the the technique to their own cuisine.
The sweet mixture of soybean pudding with almonds syrup and beans was so popular that Chinese traders passed it on to their native Malay customers.
Tofu soon became an important source of protein in the vegetarian diets of East Asian Buddhists. It wasn’t long before they started incorporating it into most of their dishes. It was initially eaten as a savory dish, with soy sauce, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, or scallions, but the Chinese eventually discovered that adding ginger or almond syrup and other toppings like beans and nuts to the soybean pudding made for a light and refreshing dessert. The sweet mixture was so popular that Chinese traders passed it on to their native Malay customers, who later came to form their own settlements in the Philippines, thus influencing early Filipino cuisine.
The very word “taho” comes from the Malay “tauhue,” which was derived from the Hokkien “tau hua,” or “tofu pudding.” The Malay version of the delicacy, however, allegedly had more medicinal qualities, with the silken blocks kept floating in sweet chili water alongside gingko seeds. Since the said seeds were not indigenous to the Philippines, Filipinos tweaked the recipe over the years until they ultimately came up with the sweeter, less medicinal arnibal and sago garnish.
Despite its universal appeal, taho’s reputation as a healthy snack was once compromised by an incident involving its sago component. Ordinarily, the gooey pearls are sourced from the sago palm, which is plentiful in Southeast Asia. However, some manufacturers experimented with using the sago cycad instead, but neglected to subject the plant to extended processing, which would have eliminated dangerous neurotoxins in its pith and seeds. The ensuing product lead to serious ailments like liver damage once consumed, and was allegedly responsible for the outbreak of a Parkinson’s disease-like epidemic in nearby countries like Papua New Guinea.
The milk tea craze also brought taho back into the spotlight, with Quickly and Chatime incorporating the silky ingredient into their menus.
Far from being nothing but a lowly street eat, taho can now be purchased from fancy, shiny metal carts in air-conditioned malls and within the walls of some of the metro’s most exclusive schools. Even Rockwell’s Power Plant has the famed Mang Nelson marketing his homemade taho at the posh mall’s Concourse Level. Recent innovations have also taken taho’s base ingredient to new heights: the Baguio variety has been infused with a strawberry flavor (and doused in strawberry syrup) in homage to the summer capital’s renowned produce, and if you step inside Chinese delicatessens like Greenhills’ DEC, you’re bound to find local flavors like ube and pandan enhancing cups of tofu custard. The milk tea craze also brought taho back into the spotlight, with industry stalwarts like Quickly and Chatime incorporating the silky ingredient into their bestselling creations.
The best testament to a delicacy’s longevity is how well its basic form can truly withstand the test of time, especially with all the recent reinventions and fluctuating trends. This is one area where taho really shines. For despite decades of globalization and popular culture influencing the country’s tastes and dictating food trends, every person alive today can still be moved to a craving for the warm, sweet treat simply by hearing a street vendor calling out “tahooooo!!!” while he plies his everyday route. When we see Manong on the road, his shoulders yoked with the traditional dual aluminum buckets that have doled out the comforting trio of silken tofu, brown syrup, and sago pearls to generations prior, we can’t help but start to reach for our wallets.