The Chinese Connection to Ice Cream

Asian-Inspired Recipes and Global Ice Cream Flavors

Coconut ice cream with tropical fruit and nuts

Getty Images / Ivan

Wander into any ice cream parlor and you're immediately struck by the sheer number of choices, both in flavors and the types of frozen treats available. Traditional hard ice cream has been joined by soft ice cream, frozen yogurt, and gelato, an Italian specialty. As for the flavors, plain old vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry have long ago made way for more creative offerings such as banana chocolate chunk, watermelon, and mango.

Healthy(ish) Ice Cream

What's behind the current renaissance in ice cream production? Oddly enough, our interest in healthy eating plays a large role. When people do decide to indulge their sweet tooth, they want a taste experience worth the extra calories. No longer satisfied with synthetic ice creams pumped full of additives, consumers are demanding ice cream made with fresh ingredients and real milk.

As for the explosion in flavors, there’s no doubt that palates have become more sophisticated in recent years. But it's also true that people are becoming aware of the health benefits of Asian fruits such as mango and papaya. Mangos are high in Vitamin A and C, but low in calories and fat. Papaya has more beta-carotene than carrots. Both mango and papaya are loaded with antioxidants.

Ginger ice cream is a growing favorite among diners at western Chinese restaurants. Valued in Chinese cooking for its unique flavor and taste, ginger is also reputed to have numerous health benefits, from aiding digestion to warding off a cold.

Ice Cream: The Chinese Connection

It's true—the Chinese are thought to have invented the first frozen ice concoction around 2,000 B.C., either by leaving it outdoors in the cold mountain winds or by freezing the ingredients in a mixture of ice and coarse salt. Furthermore, there is a theory that iced dairy products were introduced to the west by travelers returning from China. It was probably not Marco Polo, although popular literature credits him with introducing a frozen milk dessert to the Italians following his forays into the Far East.

Despite its early origins ice cream never caught on in China, both because of a lack of refrigeration in Chinese homes and because the Chinese believe it is unhealthy to eat completely frozen foods. The demand for ice cream is slowly increasing, especially in larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. And ice cream is enjoyed in other parts of Asia. Indian ice cream, called kulfi, is made by greatly reducing milk or cream before freezing. Meanwhile, Filipinos have come up with some interesting ice cream flavor combinations using native fruits and vegetables. And in many Asian/Chinese groceries, you'll find coconut "ice cream" made with coconut milk and containing no actual dairy ingredients.

The next time you visit an Asian market, check out the frozen desserts section. Chances are you'll find it stocked with a number of tempting ice cream flavors, from durian and lychee to green tea. If you prefer to make your own, here are some tasty ice cream recipes for you to try.

The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, published by Oxford University Press, 1999