Taho. Soft soybean curds (yes, tofu!) topped with sago balls and smothered with arnibal (brown sugar syrup). When I was a child, summer afternoons were spent waiting for the taho hawker. It was one of our most beloved mid-afternoon treats.
Versions of this tofu pudding snack can be found in other parts of Asia. The toppings and sweetener vary and, depending on the season, may be served hot or cold. It’s called Kembang tahu in Indonesia (Tahwa in Java from the Chinese Hokkien Tau Hwe). In Malaysia, it is tau hua (Hokkien) or tau fu fa (Cantonese). Thailand has taohuai (Hokkien). In Vietnam, it is by many names including tàu hủ nước đường. Apparently, the derivative name depends which region the dominant Chinese presence originated from.
Yes, taho is Chinese in origin
How the hawker assembles taho
In the Philippines, taho are sold by hawkers who used to be a familiar sight on the streets, vats suspended from the two ends of a wooden yoke, and calling out in a sing-song tone, “Tahooooo… Tahooooo…”
Inside the vat at the front end of the yoke is the taho, a custard-like soft tofu. The vat at the rear end of the yoke is divided into two sections — one contains the soft and chewy sago balls (not to be confused with tapioca pearls) and the other contains dark sugar syrup.
How the vendor prepares the snack is an art by itself. He starts by scooping the taho with a wide shallow spoon not unlike a spatula. He places the taho in plastic cups that he carries or cups provided by buyers if the taho vendor is selling in a residential neighborhood.
The vendor closes the front vat, shifts to the rear vat and opens it. With the use of a scoop with a long handle, he tops the taho with sago balls. And, finally, he pours a couple of scoops of the brown sugar syrup over the sago balls and taho.
There used to be more taho hawkers. When I was a child, more than one passed in front of our house in the same afternoon. By the time I was the mother of grade schoolers, hearing the familiar sing-song tone of taho hawkers had become rare occasions.
It’s sad but understandable. The streets today aren’t exactly the safest especially for a hawker who carries such a heavy load.
How do you eat taho?
If you’re brave, you gulp it. I tried gulping it dow once and ended up spilling syrup and sago balls all over my blouse.
I prefer a spoon. I stick the spoon all the way to the bottom of the mug, I stir gently then I scoop the mixed taho with the spoon.
Taho, or the modernized version of taho, started appearing in stalls in supermarkets and malls. The once ubiquitous arnibal was replaced by colorful syrups in a multitude of flavors ‐ strawberry, mango, chocolate… The modernization caught the attention of the young generation for whom eating taho was suddenly a hip thing. It’s just too bad that, with a few exceptions, the colorful syrups that attracted the young to taho in the first place reeked of artificial flavor and aroma.
And buying taho from a stall is not quite the same thing as standing beside the hawker and watching him fill a mug for you. You can ask for extra sago or extra arnibal, and the hawker will most likely oblige in the hope that you will become a regular customer.
I miss taho hawkers. Or, maybe, I’m just feeling a little nostalgic.
*Updated from a post originally published in April 11, 2009.