Manila’s streets are a cacophony of sounds: honking of jeepneys, the buzz of tricycles, the ringing bell of the ice-cream man, and the taho vendor declaring his arrival. He repeatedly chants, “Tahoooooooo.” He carries on his shoulders two metal vats balanced on a long wooden stick. On one vat, he stores the hot silken tofu for the taho dessert; on the other vat, he keeps the caramelised sugar syrup and tapioca pearls separately. His chant is always melodic: I marvel at how long he can sustain his "ooooooo". My untrained musical ear doesn't know if he is a tenor, baritone or a bass voice. None of that matters. As a little girl, hearing him would instantly prompt me to run downstairs to grab a glass from the kitchen and run out of the house to buy a serve of taho.
Using a flat ladle, he first scoops out the excess water from the hot silken tofu and throws it to the ground. He would then scoop perfect layers of the thick, hot soybean curd. With a long thin ladle, he drizzles the brown sugar syrup, adds a few scoops of the tapioca pearls, and swirls it all around to mix all three textures together. There is something comforting about the hot soy warming your stomach, combined with the sensations of the chewy tapioca balls and the sweet syrup. Taho is a snack typically consumed by Filipinos in the morning or in the afternoon.
Experiencing my first Melbourne winter this year was a shock to my system with the low temperatures in the single digits. From living in shorts and tank tops, to layering up in thermals, fleece, and puffer jackets, it was a big change. But with stage 4 lockdown, I face an even stranger concept – empty streets.
As a little girl, hearing him would instantly prompt me to run downstairs to grab a glass from the kitchen and run out of the house to buy a serve of taho.
From where I live right at the heart of Melbourne’s CBD, it's deafeningly silent. There are very few cars or people out and about. There are no trams honking, no laughter or voices. It's the opposite of the streets of Manila.
Feeling homesick, I call my best friend back home. She cheerfully shares her joy at getting her taho fix. With no street vendors allowed, she finds some taho at the mall.
To warm my spirits, I get creative. I buy a package of silken tofu from the grocery. I steam it. In a separate pan, I make a simple syrup of raw sugar and water. With no sago or tapioca pearls at the two groceries near my house, this will do. I mix it up and take a gulp of this hot soy dessert. A huge smile erupts from my face. I take a video and share it on Facebook and Instagram. It warms my heart and even inspires my friends living abroad to make their own homemade taho.
Outside my window, Melbourne is still cold and eerily quiet. But in my mind, I can almost hear the taho vendor chanting, “Tahooooooo!” I am home.
Taho (silken tofu with tapioca pearls and brown sugar syrup)
Taho is a street food peddled by vendors. With easy access to this soy snack, Filipinos don’t usually make this in their homes. But for Filipino expats craving the flavours of home, here is a simple way to produce taho.
- ½ cup brown sugar or raw sugar
- ¾ cup water
- 300 g silken tofu
- Boiled and drained tapioca pearls or sago, optional (see note)
- Combine brown sugar and water in a pot over medium heat. Bring the liquid to a boil. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow the syrup to simmer for three minutes, then remove from heat. This can be made in advance.
- Steam the silken tofu in a steamer for ten minutes or until it is heated. Alternatively, you can cook the tofu in a microwave for 3 to 5 minutes on a high setting. Drain the excess water from the silken tofu.
- Scoop the silken tofu into a glass or cup, followed by scoops of sago or tapioca pearls. Drizzle with as much hot brown sugar syrup as you wish, depending on how sweet you want it. Serve hot.
Note:Sago is an edible starch produced from the pith of palm trees. Tapioca pearls are made with tapioca or cassava starch. Filipinos traditionally use sago for taho, but it can be difficult to find sago abroad. Tapioca pearls can be found in some supermarkets and Asian groceries.
Unlike other chicken soup recipes, Filipino native chicken soup, or binakol, is made using coconut water instead of plain water or stock.
Sinigang is a popular Filipino soup with a trademark sour flavour. It can be made with meat or fish, like this recipe.