2000s Archive

Asia On Ice

Originally Published August 2001
When the mercury starts climbing, says John Powers, look east for inspiration. These iced desserts don't just look pretty, they're also a delicious way to cool off.

I first discovered iced desserts one torrid July evening in Indianola, Iowa. My family had gone to the county fair, and I was sulky from the heat. Taking me by the hand, my mother led me to a stall run by a fat man in a wilting white hat. He filled a paper cone with a big scoop of finely crushed ice, then drenched it with glistening red liquid. "You're going to like this," Mom said, and she was right. All these years later, I can still recall the giddy, sweet chill of my first sno-cone.

In the decades that followed, I ate scads of other iced desserts, from elegant sorbet medleys at Manhattan restaurants to Slurpees served in cups approximately the size of oil drums. But I never really appreciated the possibilities of ice and syrup until I moved to Southeast Asia, where the people are as inventive with these ingredients as Americans are with pizza toppings. In a region where the temperature never drops much below 80, it's almost obligatory to explore the infinite varieties of the frigid; in the tropics, nothing cools your blood down faster and more pleasurably than an iced dessert.

Asian iced desserts got their start because local people couldn't afford to make or buy ice cream. Using his bare hands, a street vendor would form shaved ice into snowballs, top them with syrup, then deposit them in the hands of children, who would try to suck up all the flavor before the balls melted away—or before their mothers caught them.

That same simplicity survives today in more austere offerings, such as the Korean staple phat bingsoo, essentially sweetened red beans over ice, or the Philippine specialties in which ice and syrup are placed on top of nata de coco (gelatinous coconut squares) and coralweed, a pallid, crunchy root that I'd seen mentioned in The Shipping News but never dreamed I'd actually wind up eating. (It's not bad.)

While these relatively plain concoctions are extremely refreshing, they lack the visual flamboyance and creamy delight of the region's most delectable iced treats. Like hallucinatory riffs on the American sundae, these spectacular desserts are all about piling things on, mixing them up, getting them sozzled with colors—rosy reds, lemon yellows, blinding Day-Glo greens. Whereas the smoothness of the classic sundae is broken only by the crunch of nuts, the most popular Asian cold desserts are all about the delicate interplay of opposites: the soft and the chewy, the rich and the bland, the bracing coldness of ice and the tongue-coating sensuality of cream. These are not dishes that leave you wanting more.

Virtually every country in Asia boasts an iced dessert of its own, but the most sumptuous come from Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. Although red beans are the traditional topping, Taiwanese iced desserts today are known for their fruitiness. (I've even seen them made with canned cling peaches.) Go to a shop like Igloo, in Taipei, and you'll find people lining up for its signature dish, ice topped with mango purée, diced mango, and (of course) condensed milk—perhaps the silkiest iced dessert served anywhere.

The gaudiest is surely halo-halo, which has all the exuberant gaiety one associates with Philippine culture at its happiest. Halo-halo means "mix-mix" in Tagalog and is often used as a metaphor for the Philippines' own distinctive mixture of East and West. You can see these cross-influences in the dessert itself, a mélange of ingredients served in a tall, clear glass and eaten with a long spoon. When you get it at a stall in Manila, the bottom of your glass is first covered with a crazy blend of ingredients that can include macapuno (sweetened coconut meat), jackfruit, sliced cantaloupe, mango cubes, bits of plantain, sweetened garbanzos, mung beans, and gelatin made from agar-agar. These are buried beneath a big scoop of ice, then topped with evaporated milk, pieces of leche flan sliced like tamago sushi, and maybe a big scoop of ice cream, ideally yam. Bright, sweet, and bursting with attractions, halo-halo is the Las Vegas of iced desserts.

By comparison, Singapore's beloved ice kachang seems almost minimalist. At first glance, it looks like nothing so much as a rainbow-striped snowdrift, a mini-Everest of ice that's been doused with tasty, pink rose syrup, the neon-green essence of pandan leaf (which nobody much likes), and gula melaka, a full-bodied, liquid brown palm sugar that's the stuff of Southeast Asian myth: Hawker stalls rise and fall on the strength of their gula melaka and their generosity in dispensing it.

But ice kachang looks simple only because the climate's so hot you need to put the ice on top so it can be eaten before it melts. Once you dig in, you find that your bowl is filled with goodies—red beans (the kachang), chewy transparent palm seeds, cubes of grass jelly, and pink agar-agar. And for those who find this too spartan, you can get it topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, a flourish first made fashionable in the 1970s by the fabled (and now vanished) Ladyhill Hotel café.

Ice kachang may be their national dessert, but many Singaporeans prefer Indonesian (and Malaysian) chendol, named for its trademark ingredient, the chewy, blindingly verdant "worms" made of green pea flour. While the basic dish is far from conceptually ambitious—just red beans, chendol, and powder-fine ice—it's blessed with what are perhaps the two best-tasting toppings: Coconut milk gives the ice an irresistible creaminess, while great lashings of gula melaka contribute an intense sweetness. Together, the sugar syrup and the coconut milk are swooningly delicious—the kind of sauce you'd expect to find in nirvana. If that's not rich enough for you, you can wash it all down with es alpukat, a thick, icy Indonesian shake made of avocado, coffee, vanilla, and condensed milk.

One of the great glories of iced desserts is that there's no correct way to make them—you can put in, or on, whatever you like. And you can constantly update them.

Whenever friends come to visit, I take them to hawker centers and food courts where they can try out a chendol, an ice kachang, or a halo-halo, or dig into some nice, crunchy iced coral weed. They sometimes look skeptical as we approach the counter, but I ask if they like sno-cones and then tell them not to worry. "You're going to like this," I say.

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