We all love Thai curries, Japanese noodles and Indian snacks, so why not Asian-inspired desserts? With the amount of ice cream sold dropping globally, manufacturers are starting to experiment with exotic flavours to whet flagging appetites.
In late 1944, Major Hunter Reinburg, commanding officer of 122 Squadron of the American Marine Corps, had a hankering for ice cream.
Not surprising perhaps, since he was posted to the sweltering, jungle-covered South Pacific island of Peleliu.
So Hunter set his resourceful team of aircraft engineers to work on Operation Freeze.
After some trial and error, they found that by mounting a large can filled with milk onto the underside of each wing tip of their fighter planes, attaching a stirring shaft to a wind-driven propeller, and then undertaking a training sortie at 30,000 feet, they could supply 100 servicemen with a helping of ice cream every day, whilst simultaneously provoking the Japanese to waste a few shells trying to bring them down.
Hunter was, however, missing a trick.
If, instead of flavouring his favourite treat with army-issue cocoa powder, he’d cast his eye around him to see what fruits and spices the South Pacific had to offer, then he really would have been ahead of his time.
He could have tried lychee, coconut, cardamom, nutmeg or ginger – flavours that ice cream makers are now starting to experiment with.
In the 70 years since Hunter went to such lengths to satisfy his passion for frozen dairy desserts, global ice cream brands have spread their reach to almost every corner of the planet. Even in Peleliu he could now probably pick up a Cornetto from his corner store.
But for many years, flavours from the big international brands remained stubbornly conservative, dominated by chocolate, strawberry and vanilla.
Now though, thanks to migration, long-haul travel, and the internet, consumers are becoming more adventurous and manufacturers are taking note.
Parlours have sprung up across the US offering Persian-style saffron, orange blossom, and rosewater ice cream, sprinkled with nuts and drizzled with honey; and Indian-inspired flavours such as masala chai, pineapple, and kulfi.
At Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in New York, where they’ve been offering exotic ice creams for 40 years, they’ve noticed an uptick in interest from customers.
Owner Christina Seid says there’s often a queue of 20 customers waiting to try her Chinese-inspired range, which includes red bean, toasted sesame, and taro (a kind of sweet potato) ice cream.
She thinks Americans are ready to embrace these flavours in a way they perhaps weren’t when her parents, Chinese immigrants, first set up the shop.
“My father was the pioneer of a lot of these flavours. Back then people didn’t even know what a mango or green tea was.
“Now, nothing is really weird.”
She thinks red bean flavour, common in China, will eventually become mainstream in the US.
China consumed most at 3.3bn litres
Norwegians ate the most per head at 9.8 litres
Sales grew fastest in India at 13%
In many of the world’s biggest ice cream markets appetites have been flagging for traditional take-home tubs. Consumers are worrying about the sugar content and there’s a lot of competition.
According to market research firm Mintel, global ice-cream sales fell from 15.6bn litres in 2015 to 13bn last year. As a result, firms are watching what happens in places like The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory carefully.
“Trends are born in the parlours where they can afford to take a gamble,” says Alex Beckett, global food and drink analyst at Mintel.
“They become fashionable. Then they travel from Brooklyn to LA and Chicago, then to Sydney, London, Berlin, and eventually they will be picked up by manufacturers who will start to set the market for these more ethnic styles”
Yee Kwan Chan, who is based in the UK city of Sheffield and whose family is also Chinese, travels to far flung parts of the world in search of inspiration for her Yee Kwan line of desserts.
“I just want to create authentic flavours you’d find in Asia,” she says.
Her concoctions include chocolate miso, black sesame seed, and durian – the fruit with the pungent odour often likened to sewage or something rotting – which is surprisingly popular in Asia.
At Christmas she travelled to Hong Kong and is now producing egg custard tart ice cream, evoking the afternoon tea treat popular there.
“With the East Asian palate we’ve got sweet and we’ve got sour and then we have bitter: we use all our senses,” says Ms Chan.
With foreign travel and Asian food so popular, she’s convinced that Asian-inspired flavours will be on the shop shelves in the US and Europe as a matter of course in a few years’ time.
But for that to happen at any scale, larger manufacturers will also need to get on board.
Unilever, the world’s largest producer, is open to the idea.
They already make a myriad of flavours to suit local palates, including red bean Cornettos in China, a liquorice recipe for Scandinavia, and they’ve just launched a “dung dung” ice cream – based on an “earthy” tasting fruit – in Indonesia.
Matt Close, Unilever’s executive vice president of global ice cream, says they’ve always got an eye out for new flavours that might “travel”.
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This year in India, the world’s fastest growing ice cream market, they launched a kulfi ice cream, made with condensed milk and flavoured with rose water so it tastes a little like Turkish Delight.
“I’m absolutely convinced kulfi would work in the UK,” says Mr Close.
“You’d start where there are big Indian communities, but there is no reason that wouldn’t stretch.”
While taro and red bean recipes might be harder to export, matcha (green tea) flavours seem likely to be at the forefront of any Asian invasion, he thinks.
“We’ve just launched a matcha ice cream in the Philippines. We’ll take it to other markets.
“I’d put money on the idea that there’d be green tea ice cream or green tea ice lollies in most markets in the not too distant future.”
Three things to try
Booza – also known as Dondurma (in Turkey), this is made with ground powdered orchid root and mastic gum. These ice creams melt more slowly and have a thicker, chewier texture.
Thai rolled ice cream – the latest Asian ice cream trend involves pouring mixture onto a freezing slab of metal then rolling it up like a piece of paper
Durian ice cream – only the very adventurous are usually attracted by the the prickly Asian fruit that smells so bad it’s illegal to carry it on the subway in Singapore. An acquired taste.