story by Shayne Chammavanijakul
One of the food highlights of every trip I make to Southeast Asia is the amazing ice cream I can get there—or perhaps I should say it’s the amazing ice-cream toppings and the way in which they and the ice cream are presented that I particularly look forward to.
Southeast Asia is hot and humid nearly all year round, so ice cream can be—and is—enjoyed at any time. In Singapore, it’s hard not to be tempted to make a stop at a street cart where you can get a thick slice of ice cream wrapped in a larger slice of rainbow-colored soft bread. In Malaysia, a bowl of ais kacang (literally, “ice beans”) comes with all sorts of sweet concoctions. The last one I had included a mountain of shaved ice topped with sweet red beans, hydrated basil seeds, red syrup, creamed corn, a scoop of coconut ice cream, and a general sprinkling of chopped peanuts. In the Philippines, the iconic iced dessert, halo-halo (literally, “mix-mix”), is loaded with sweet beans, tubers, fruits, and beautifully violet ice cream made of purple yams, ube; it’s as pretty to look at as it is delicious and filling to eat. In Indonesia, vendors make a sweet variety of pancakes, murtabak, by spreading the ice cream of your choice on top of a pancake just before it’s taken off the pan. The ice cream melts ever so slightly and fills every nook and cranny of the pancake, which then gets folded in half and cut into pieces. You have to eat them quickly—not that I’ve ever considered that a difficult task.
But Thailand and its fun and vibrant ice-cream culture, of course, will always be my first love when it comes to Southeast Asian style ice cream—among many other things. When you mention Thai ice cream these days, people’s minds usually go to one of the latest ice-cream trends in the United States: the so-called Thai ice-cream rolls that are made by freezing a liquid or semi-solid ice-cream base over a sub-zero surface, spreading it into a paper-thin sheet of solid mass, and scraping it with a putty knife into tight rolls. The rolls are then arranged vertically, all snug together, in a small bowl, and loaded with the toppings of your choice—in the United States, these toppings take the form of all-American perennial favorites such as Oreo cookie crumbles and rainbow sprinkles or East Asian toppings that are more familiar to Americans such as bursting boba pearls in various Asian-fruit flavors. (You’ve seen them at some of the frozen yogurt places.)
However popular Thai rolled ice cream may be in the United States, this type of ice cream represents only a small—and maybe faddish—segment of Thai ice cream. The best kind of Thai ice cream, if you ask me, is much less of a trend and more of an enduring classic. It lacks the flamboyant showmanship of the rolled ice cream, but it’s rooted in the East and Southeast Asian tradition of featuring grains, nuts, seeds, and tubers in sweet snacks and desserts that’s more prominent here than it usually is elsewhere in the world.
And this is what makes it all very interesting to me.
My parents often tell me about how, when they were growing up, an ice-cream tricycle would always be parked just outside the gate of their school, and they could get ice cream with a large variety of toppings. The ice cream itself was plain—coconut flavored in most cases—but it was the toppings with which you could create countless combinations that never failed to excite school kids and adults alike. Foremost, a brand of ice cream and dairy products operating out of Thailand, used to have sala Foremost, small ice-cream parlors that sold Foremost products, all over Bangkok and other big cities in various regions. Salak-flavored icicles reigned back in those days. Salacca zalacca, a palm tree native to Indonesia that’s widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia, made it into most iced desserts including ice creams and syrups. Red bean icicles, black bean icicles, and taro icicles were just as popular. Icicles with Chinese grass jelly, a gelatin-like concoction made from the stalks and leaves of Platostoma palustre (Mesona chinensis), localized as chao kuai in Thai, with the addition of potassium carbonate, were also a staple.
Foremost was long ago acquired by the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, Unilever, who promptly turned it into Wall’s and, according to my parents—who can’t talk about this without sighing bitterly—took away so many things the Thais loved about Foremost. The ice-cream tricycles that used to go to every corner of every residential area in Bangkok are no longer a regular part of life there either.
Yet, in the past decade or so, an ice-cream revival of sorts has taken place, and many of the old-school ice creams in Thailand, including the type that is cut into tiny brick-shaped pieces served on a bamboo skewer as the handle, have been making a comeback with a vengeance. The moveable ice-cream feast from the old days can now be experienced at several family restaurants. Instead of flagging down an ice-cream tricycle—not many of them exist nowadays anyway—you can go to one of these restaurants at any mall in Bangkok and order a scoop of plain coconut ice cream that will arrive at your table with what I call a “topping buffet,” a caddie of four to six glass containers filled to the brim with various toppings that you can help yourself to as much as you want in one sitting. It is glorious.
A popular destination, Chatuchak Weekend Market, is also dotted with ice-cream stalls and carts. You can order your ice cream in an all-natural, biodegradable bowl made from a half coconut shell with the coconut meat already scraped out, or you can have your ice cream scooped right into a split hoagie bun. Either way, they let you load up on toppings before finishing off your customized creation with a generous drizzle of evaporated milk to add more creaminess to the whole thing. (Sweetened condensed milk, which you may think makes more sense as a final anointment for such a thing as this, is deemed too sweet.)
To enjoy ice cream the way Thai people enjoy it, you have to enjoy grains, tubers, legumes, and seeds as dessert items. This seems easier said than done. Corn, for example, often presents a mental hurdle that many Westerners have to jump over before they can appreciate Asian-style ice cream. When some people see corn, they think “vegetable.” In Southeast Asia, when people see fresh, plump, sweet corn, they think “dessert.” This is the same with all kinds of tubers—from purple yams and sweet potatoes to taro roots and lotus roots. Grains and legumes are found much more commonly in sweet applications than savory, and they’re the staples of ice-cream toppings—even yogurt toppings!
Western fast-food franchises in Southeast Asia understand this well, and they make what people demand. McDonald’s in Thailand makes mean hand pies with sweet creamed corn filling. KFC makes corn ice cream parfait with sweet creamed corn between layers of vanilla soft serve ice cream and topped with steamed corn kernels. People and food manufacturers make corn milk by blending fresh corn kernels with water into a fine purée, straining out the pulp—similar to how soy milk is made—and serving the resulting fresh corn milk as a sweet, refreshing snack. In light of this, the presence of fresh corn kernels at every ice-cream store in Southeast Asia, be it in the form of a topping or an add-in, shouldn’t surprise anyone. I love my ice cream loaded with corn.
As far as the Thais are concerned, black beans, red beans, mung beans, and pumpkin all make great ice-cream toppings. It’s the same situation elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
One of the things that makes the ice-cream scene in Southeast Asia so tantalizing is the abundance of toppings available to choose from at any given time. Who can resist an ice-cream stall with row upon row of glass jars containing a broad range of toppings in every color possible? Unfortunately, this is also what makes it challenging to recreate this scene at home. It makes more sense, therefore, to transform dessert into a “party” where you can serve many different toppings for your friends and family to add to their ice cream.
Middle row (L-R): sweet purple yam, steamed taro, honey roasted peanuts, coconut jelly, candied gingko nuts
To do that, follow my simple guidelines, which apply to a countless number of ingredients. This also allows you to expand your topping repertoire beyond what we have suggested here.
- Make a large batch (at least a quart) of simple syrup that comprises one part granulated sugar and one part water. Store it in the refrigerator.
- Choose whatever grains, legumes, tubers, fruits, and vegetables you like. The key is to cook them 3/4 of the way, relying on your experience to judge when to remove them from the heat and drain them or pat them dry. Finish cooking them in just enough simple syrup to soften and sweeten them further and to reduce and concentrate the syrup into a glaze. At this point, you just have to cool them down before serving them with the ice cream.
- Keep in mind that some tubers are already naturally sweet. Unless you like them extra sweet, there’s no need to cook them again in the syrup.
- Take advantage of imported products that allow you to enjoy tropical treats without having to go to Asia. Canned palm seeds in syrup, canned candied palm seeds, canned jackfruit in light syrup, canned coconut jelly—all of these can be found at any Asian grocery store. They’re ready to eat!
- Serve the ice cream and the toppings in a bowl or a partially-split roll. I like hoagie rolls that are soft yet strong enough to support the ice cream when it starts melting mid-consumption. A French baguette, especially an artisanal one, is much too crusty and chewy for the job, whereas a hot dog bun is too small and too soft.
- Top it all off with evaporated milk.
These are all the guidelines you need. Experiment with the things you either have in your pantry already or have yet to discover. The goal is to have fun.
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