The profusion of fancy flavours for ice cream is getting out of control: what's wrong with good old vanilla, anyway?
Amid a rainbow of flavours, I am still frozen in the past
On a hot day in Singapore not long ago, a friend took me to an ice cream shop that she had been raving about. Island Creamery presented us with a smorgasbord of flavours - milo, chendol, teh tarik and others. But something was missing. What happened to plain old vanilla?
As any child today knows, the ice cream of the 21st century comes in a kaleidoscope of choices. In India, kulfi ice creams with saffron, pistachios and mango are hugely popular. In Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh, falooda made with vermicelli, tapioca pearls, milk cream and ice is slurped down all summer long.
And modern innovations have made their mark on this favourite desert. Dippin' Dots, for instance, uses liquid nitrogen instead of conventional freezing methods to give its multicoloured pebbles an ice cream-like texture. And the UAE's Al Ain Dairy uses camel-milk flavoured with rose water for its ice creams, a healthy - if acquired - taste.
There was a time when manufacturers showed some restraint when it came to this age-old confection. Not any more.
Today's new flavours begin at the other end of the taste spectrum. Red chilli ice cream? Why not? Olives? The more the merrier. In this environment, green tea ice cream seems almost passé. Some Chinese, apparently, even like fish-flavoured ice cream.
What bugs me is that in the race to innovate, ice-cream makers are ignoring its hallowed history. Why mess with 3,000 years of tradition and create flavours that have no connection with the past?
The first ice creams were elegant in their simplicity. Persians poured pomegranate juice into bowls and sunk them into snow. During the summer months, mountains of ice would be stored in the underground chambers of domed structures called yakhchal, or ice-pits, used to cool fruit juices.
The Chinese used ice to cool mixtures of rice, milk and fruits as early as 200BC. When the Mughals arrived in India, they had relays of horsemen bring ice from the Hindu Kush mountains to satisfy their penchant for ice cream. One can only imagine fleet-footed horses with dripping ice tearing through the mountains and valleys to ensure that their cold cargo reached Emperor Akbar in Delhi.
Three hundred years before him, Kublai Khan is supposed to have enjoyed the cold sherbets passed on from his ancestors in Samarkhand.
The heart of the matter today is the balance between tradition and innovation.
There are two approaches: the evolutionary approach of gradual changes while maintaining a link, however tenuous, to history.
With most food, this is the approach that works. You definitely should not make mango ketchup, for instance. In order for a dish to be called ketchup, it has to have some connection with the humble tomato.
Similarly, for a dish to be called ice cream, it should conform to certain conventions: it should be rich, creamy, ice cold and have a certain sweetness. This is why bitter ice cream is an oxymoron in my view.
Not all agree with this thesis. The revolutionaries, for instance, believe that innovation requires a clean break with the past. They are the ones propagating red chillies and sour lemons as flavours. The sad part, for purists like me, is that they are gaining ground.
There are many ways to cool off on a hot summer day. Jumping into the pool is one. Sweating it off with some hot tea is an eastern approach. Eating ice cream is a third, and to in my mind, the most pleasurable.
As an avowed fanatic, my hope is that the revolutionaries in food science will stay away from my ice cream. A proper ice cream should be eaten in a cup and contain one, maybe two, flavours and no superfluous ingredients.
Try it and see. You may become a convert to the purist theory of the culinary form.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary