The Evolution of Ice Cream in Asia

Dec 7, 2019 | BIZ, China, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, TASTE, Thailand

Custard Milk with Ice Cream ©Cottonbro

Ice cream has had a long and fulfilling journey in Asia from its origin story to its present-day impact, surpassing nations in the West.

I scream, you scream— we all scream for ice cream. It would not be considered out of line to regard ice cream to be in one of the highest tiers of delicious desserts out there. Aside from the sweet quench of flavor, it possesses strong nostalgic energy that brings one back to their childhood. It is that timeless quality that makes it a gem because no matter how much time passes, it will always still be sought out for and enjoyed by people from all walks of life.

Due to the media, we all have that iconic, all-american visual of an ice cream truck making its way down a suburban road, happily selling treats to kids on a warm, sunny day. Though ice cream has become a classic American treat, the origin of the dessert traces back to Asia. And ice cream has returned home, as Asia now dominates its international market sales and leads the rest of the world with innovative and effective trends.

Ice Cream – Chiang Mai, Thailand ©World Citizen Pix

Ice cream originated in China in 200 BC during the Shang dynasty when King Tang discovered that the taste of ice gathered from the wilderness tasted sweet like honey. He would regularly send about 100 men to gather more ice for his enjoyment. Loving the taste, the king decided to elevate his discovery by adding buffalo milk, salt and syrup to enhance the sweetness. It was later unearthed that the reason the ice had tasted of honey in the first place was that hives were scattered throughout the forest, occasionally dripping their honey on the ground. Sometimes, the men would pick pomegranates to later add to the concoction for a fruity flavor.

During Marco Polo’s trip to China, he picked up on this delicacy and introduced it to his next destination, Italy. Italy took this recipe and did wonders with it. To this day, they are famously known as the curators for delicious ice cream, even coming up with gelato, an all-around favorite variation of the dessert. 

Mochi Ice Cream ©Patty

Ice Cream Returns to its Humble Home: How Asia Surpassed the West

Ice cream sales have largely been dominated by the Western market for many years, but alas, times are changing. Now, the West is looking to Asia for inspiration. This is not all that surprising because, well, ice cream got its start in China. Asia is reclaiming their invention and dominating the market with its unique, delicious and sophisticated recipes and trends. 

China leads with the world’s largest market sales of ice cream with a whopping 4.3 billion. In 2016, India, Vietnam and Indonesia amassed a total of 13 billion liters worth of ice cream sales. India, alone, is expected to reach 657 million liters of sales by 2021. Global food and drink analyst, Alex Beckett, stated in an interview:

The rapidity with which India’s ice cream market is expanding is worth noting. The low per capita consumption of retail ice cream in India demonstrates the exciting potential in what is the world’s second most populated country, although competition from street vendors should not be underestimated.

Japanese Ice Cream ©Timothy Takemoto

Meanwhile, market sales in the West have been shaky. Asia has been keeping up with the times, elevating itself with current pop culture trends and crazes. This, mixed with the exotic blends of tasteful Asian flavors, and we have a hit. Western consumers are keen to get a taste of these innovative measures and flavors which is why Asian ice cream trends are gaining a stronger presence in places like the United States, Canada and many European countries. 30% of Canadians want to incorporate more traditional Asia-Pacific ice cream flavors into their arsenal, such as green tea, mango and cheese. 20% of Italian and French consumers are interested in more ethnically-inspired ice cream flavors like wasabi, saffron, sweet potato and green tea.

In the United States, Asian flavors are already a big hit with consumers. Crowd favorites are mochi, a Japanese dessert of frozen, glutinous rice dough with an ice cream filling, and Thai-style rolled ice cream where custard is manually chopped up with an array of fruits and flavors on a flat frozen sheet for that organic and aesthetically-pleasing ice cream experience. Indian ice cream, also known as kulfi, is starting to make waves in the American ice cream scene for its astoundingly creamy texture. The Middle East is also a frontrunner for innovative ice cream with its delectable booza, a stretchy, milky treat with unmatched flavor, and the best part? It takes a long time to melt. Ice cream that defies time? What more can you ask for?

Asia’s Emerging Ice Cream Trends and Classic Flavor Crazes:

The inspiration that Asia provides the West is not unrequited. Asia is growing to be more and more progressive as time goes by, and the continent’s newest craze is a health-conscious one inspired by American culture. Every day, vegan ice cream options grow in Asia and it’s more popular than ever. Vegan ice cream is at a golden age in the Asian market and the demand is continuously growing and spreading across all nations. 

Much of Asia’s culinary allure lies in its sweetness. Many ingredients in Asian dishes are sweet components that provide a pull of flavor with an abundance of taste. This is especially true for their desserts. The ice cream flavors are commonly and expectedly sweet, but the Asia-Pacific is branching out. There has been an increase in Western savory flavors, such as bacon, bleu cheese, pretzels and popcorn. Though this is relatively new among the greater public, consumers are open to the unique realm of flavor. 

Asia’s Classic and Crazy Palate:

Japan is known as Asia’s top innovator for wacky and jaw-dropping ice cream flavors. In Tokyo, Japan’s capital city, there’s a whole bunch of flavors bound to tickle your fancy. Or scare the hell out of you. With ice cream flavors like octopus, horseflesh, shrimp, and cow-tongue, the country definitely does not lack innovation. There are also vegetarian options such as kelp and garlic. The use of salt is very popular and it is incorporated into most mixtures.

The Philippines is a country that loves everything and anything sweet, but it loves to break boundaries with its ice cream. Bicol’s staple ice cream flavor is sili, also known as chili, and it is the city’s main attraction. The sweet yet spicy combination is a strong favorite among locals and foreigners alike. But nothing beats cheese. Cheese is a popular and strong favorite among the locals, so much so, that the ice cream usually has chunks of it lodged inside. But that isn’t all. You don’t usually see ice cream and crocodiles in the same picture, but in Davao, it’s the norm. Don’t worry, it’s not crocodile meat— just the eggs. This births the flavors of crocodile pandan ice cream and crocodile coffee ice cream. 

Malaysia isn’t Malaysia without nasi lemak, its famed and national dish. What if I told you that there was an ice cream version of it? Yep, for RM10 in Kedah’s Skream Softserve, you can get a nasi lemak ice cream and the hints of coconut-y rice with the savory crunches are to die for. Anchovies, cucumber, peanuts and their very own homemade sambal to top it off— drool.

Suffice to say, the rest of the world has much catching up to do with Asia rising through the ranks as a bunch of nations turning into ice cream connoisseurs. How beautiful it is for the delicious wonder of ice cream to flourish in its own home.