Ice Cream Around the World
While ice cream is an iconic American summer treat, variations of it are enjoyed around the globe. India's kulfi, Italy's gelato and more — here's a rundown of the world's finest frozen delights.
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The Geography of Frozen Treats
There is always a moment during the most-sweltering day of the summer when every person wonders if he or she would be better off packing it up and heading to the North Pole. Most people live in a place where it gets brutally hot, even if only for a single day. This is why almost every culture in the world has its own version of ice cream to keep people cool when the temp outside becomes unbearable — and, yes, that does include the people in the Arctic Circle. Even they will break a sweat sometimes.
Mochi is a thick, chewy Japanese cake that is believed to be at least 2,000 years old. Made of little more than pounded glutinous rice, it was referred to as "Food for the Gods" and thought to symbolize a long life. The idea of wrapping it around ice cream came in the early 1990s courtesy of Frances Hashimoto, owner of Los Angeles Japanese-American confectionary Mikawaya. She was inspired by a traditional Japanese treat called daifuku (translation: "great luck"), in which a small piece of mochi is flattened, stuffed with a sweet filling, then rolled into a ball. Hashimoto knew the odds of American audiences going gaga over red bean paste weren't good, but what about using chocolate ice cream, fusing daifuku with ice cream sandwiches? It became an immediate hit, and it soon made its way back to Japan, where it's become one of the country's most-popular desserts.
"Dondurma" is Turkish for "freezing," and you can find this sweet treat in Azerbaijan, parts of Greece and other parts of the Middle East where sweltering heat is more common than not. Sweet and creamy like American ice cream, dondurma has a thicker, almost chewy texture. While certainly a pleasant texture, this is more for function than flavor: By adding salep, the powdered root of a Turkish orchard, and mastic, a thick tree resin, the ice cream melts a bit more slowly, which is very important in 100-plus-degree temperatures.
Everyone loves when ice cream finds a way to get even more playful, and Germany might have taken the (frozen) cake. Since the 1960s, German ice cream parlors have been pressing vanilla ice cream through spatzle presses to make long spaghetti-esque "noodles," then topping them with sweet strawberry "sauce" and shaved white chocolate "cheese."
This staple of the Indian subcontinent is denser than air-filled ice cream, and it's creamier, thanks to condensing the milk and cream through slow cooking. It is commonly flavored with aromatic flavors such as rosewater or tropical fruits like mango. For a bit of crunch, kulfi is often covered with toppings: Roasted pistachios are highly popular, as are crushed vermicelli noodles.
Despite what you may think, "gelato" is not simply the Italian word for "ice cream." Gelato is lower in fat, as the bulk of the custard is made from milk, not cream. How does it manage to have that ultra-creamy taste with less fat? Gelato is churned more slowly than ice cream, so it doesn't contain as much air, resulting in an intensely flavored — and incredibly rich — frozen dessert. You can get it in a cup or a cone, but to do as the Romans do, try a scoop on a buttery brioche roll.
Ecuador: Helado de Paila
If you're traveling through the high Andes of Columbia or northern Ecuador, you're sure to come across this roadside treat, which you can watch being made. A large round-bottomed brass pan filled with a blend of local fruit, sugar, and water or cream is placed on a bed of crushed ice, then continually spun and stirred until a light frozen concoction appears before your eyes. Popular flavorings are fruits such as taxo, araza and naranjilla.
The food of Russia was heavily influenced by classical French cuisine in the 19th century, where plombir has its roots. Unlike the ice cream that is currently popular in France, plombir is heavy on the eggs — like a thick, frozen pastry cream.
The United Kingdom: Viennetta
Viennetta was, without question, the king of ice cream cakes in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s. Then, mysteriously, they disappeared, leaving a chocolate-ribboned hole in our hearts. Made with thin layers of vanilla ice cream interspersed with even thinner layers of crunchy chocolate, this legendary cake is still wildly popular in the U.K., where it can be found in the freezer section of most supermarkets.
China: Stir-Fried Ice Cream
Ice cream isn't just a treat in China — it's a show. Unlike the battered and deep-fried ice cream that may be familiar to some Americans, stir-fried ice cream isn't cooked with a hot surface; it's cooked by a freezing-cold one. Custard is poured over a metal griddle that is chilled to minus 31 degrees F. Fruit or flavorings are scattered across and rapidly chopped up into the cream, which is folded over again and again until it is finally spread into a thin sheet. Once set, it's shaved into delicate rolls using an ice scraper.
Sorbetes is nicknamed "dirty ice cream" because it's commonly sold by street peddlers in the crowded city streets — not because it's filthy. Originally it was made using the milk of a carabao, but today there is also a common variety made with coconut milk. Sorbetes is thickened with cassava flour, also known as tapioca, and served either in wafer cones or on sweet bread.
During the hot weather, a Mexican custard called chongos is transformed into cold and creamy ice cream. Originally made by nuns back in colonial times, chongos begin with a pot of milk and sugar which are curdled with rennet, the enzyme used for cheese making. The soft curd is then sprinkled with canela, cinnamon from Mexico which is widely considered the world’s best.