By Michael Moore
Food historians seem to agree that frozen desserts first appeared in China. There is evidence that primitive forms of ice cream were being eaten in frigid areas of China as far back as 2000 BC. Flavoured water ices, a less complicated product, were regular fare in areas with ice when Marco Polo, Italy’s famous wanderer, arrived on the scene. He was so impressed with what he saw that he took recipes back to Europe. A short time later no royal banquet was complete without a sorbet to clean the palate between courses. The Europeans started eating ice cream, as we now know it, when the technology for making ice was developed. It became the rage with French royalty after a clever chef figured out how to make it. Not to be outdone by the French, other royal houses started consuming it in large quantities. Initially the cost and problems of making ice made it a dish reserved for those with blue blood. But as ice became cheaper, ice cream’s popularity spread to the masses. By the time Europeans started colonizing North America, it was being eaten by everyone and it quickly became popular in the British colonies, where it was consumed in prodigious quantities. Today ice cream is so ubiquitous in North America that many erroneously believe it was invented there.
The Thai experience with eating frozen desserts is remarkably similar. They were first eaten by royalty who learned about them from their European counterparts. Later, when it became possible to make ice cheaply, the taste for frozen treats trickled down to the common people. At this point, the imagination of the Thais took over, and the products that emerged employed ingredients that were locally popular and easily available.
The first step was to make flavoured frozen ices. This was accomplished in several ways and some of them are still followed today. The i-tim laht that are sold by mobile vendors and in Thailand’s traditional markets provide a fascinating glimpse into the past. These ice lollies are made in an extraordinary contraption fabricated from stainless steel. Tubes slide into a rack that is fitted into a large container that is filled with ice and salt. The rack is shaken back and forth to promote freezing. When the ice is almost frozen, a bamboo stick is inserted so that tube of frozen ice can be enjoyed without the consumer ending up with sticky hands.
However, as everyone who has eaten ice cream knows, flavoured ices are a far cry from the scrumptiously rich and creamy taste of ice cream. The Thais, who didn’t have a lot of dairy products, reached the same conclusion. Lacking cows and the cream they produce, they turned to the coconut for the liquid necessary for making “ice cream”. The taste and texture of im kati sohtslightly different, but the cream obtained by squeezing coconut flesh that has soaked in water possesses the fat necessary to make a dessert similar to the ice cream made from dairy products.
Thailand’s frozen ices and coconut ice cream owe their flavours to dessert ingredients virtually unheard of among Westerners. Millet, corn, basil seeds, red beans, black beans boiled with syrup, and laht chong, a bright green noodle flavoured and coloured with pandanus leaves, are some of the favourites. Just try finding these flavours and toppings at your local Baskin-Robbins.
Even now, with dairy products readily available in Thailand, the ice cream made by vendors and hawkers is often made solely from coconut cream or from a combination of dairy and coconut creams.
The enduring Thai fondness for ice cream made from coconuts probably isn’t merely a question of taste preference. The Thais, like most people in the Asia, have difficulties digesting lactose, the sugar that occurs naturally in milk. Since lactose doesn’t occur in coconut milk, large quantities of coconut-based ice cream can be consumed without the irritating side effects produced by dairy ice cream.
Traditional Thai ice cream is available in a variety of places. Vendors on bicycles and motorbikes with boxes attached containing ice and coconut ice cream cruise the streets and laneways of Thailand’s cities and towns. They are always followed, as with ice-cream vendors throughout the world, by a gaggle of children who have pestered their parents for a little money to buy some of the rich, cold sweetness.
Although the plastic and stainless-steel emporiums operated by Swensens and Baskin-Robbins have made an assault on Thailand, it’s still possible to find ice-cream parlours specializing in coconut milk ice cream. If you see one – or a vendor trundling down the street – take the opportunity to try what’s on offer. In addition to a pleasant taste treat, the experience will provide you with an inexpensive and fascinating trip into Thailand’s past.
One of the most unique things about Thai ice cream is the way it’s served. Cups and cones are popular, but most Thais prefer their ice cream dished up in a hot-dog bun! The bun is opened and filled with small scoops of one or more varieties of ice cream. A topping or two – often surprising in nature to Westerners – is poured on top and the ice cream and bun are then eaten like a hot-dog. The result is always delicious, unusual and uniquely Thai.
Traditional Recipe For Coconut Ice Cream 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup water 3 1/2 cups thick coconut milk In a saucepan, heat the water and melt the sugar till you have a thick syrup, taking care not to scorch the sugar. It should be thick enough to coat a spoon or paddle.
Remove from the heat and, when the syrup has cooled to the point where it’s warm, add the thick coconut milk.
Put the mixture in the container of an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s directions. If desired, shredded coconut or a chopped fruit of your choice can be added.
Remove the ice cream from its container and serve.