The slushy-sweet frappés at Okamoto Kitchen, a food truck in Los Angeles, begin with ice — not plain, but enriched with heavy cream, milk powder and simple syrup. The snowy shavings are layered with caramel, whipped cream and melting bits of fragrant jellied coffee, Earl Grey tea or matcha, in a lush new variation on ancient Japanese kakigori (shaved ice) and modern Japanese parfaits.
At Taiyaki NYC in Chinatown, tall swirls of pale green matcha and black sesame soft-serve ice creams are piled in warm, fluffy waffle cones shaped like fish, their mouths yawning wide enough to add fresh strawberries and a skewer of multicolored mini-mochi.
Blossom, a shop across the river in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, mixes Oreo-banana Thai ice cream rolls on an icy metal plate, topping them with a drizzle of condensed milk, mini-chocolate peanut butter cups, strawberry and green tea Kit Kats and a blowtorch-toasted marshmallow.
That’s the concoction Rachel Lee, a student at Pratt Institute, was trying to capture last weekend before the summer evening turned dark. “I hope it doesn’t melt before I can eat it,” she said, turning the cup this way and that to find the best angle for Snapchat, and then a different one for Facebook. “But posting it is part of the point.”
Icy, pretty frozen treats from Asia — Thai ice cream rolls, Korean-style honey soft serve, Hong Kong egg waffle sundaes, Japanese parfaits, Chinese ice-cream-filled buns, Taiwanese bubble tea floats, and Filipino and Indonesian shaved ice — are popping up in more and more places in the United States, where they put the basic American scoop shop to shame.
But the point of lining up for a limited-edition treat like Taiyaki’s taro slush unicorn float may be followers, not flavors. Some of these treats are delicious, some are perfectly pleasant and many are achingly, inedibly sweet. Yet in a social-media-dominated world, the picture can be more satisfying than the dessert.
On summer nights, lines stretch out the door at Bingbox in the East Village, where fluffy “snow cream” is topped with caramel popcorn, and Wowfulls on the Lower East Side, where bubbled waffles are wrapped around sundaes. Ice cream innovators have figured out how to swirl a tutu of cotton candy around a cone of soft serve, shape ice into pleats and turn a baby watermelon into a bowl for shaved ice, watermelon balls and meringues.
Cathy Erway, an expert on Taiwanese-American food, said that as thousands of Asian students have arrived in the United States, vendors of their favored foods have followed.
“A lot of the new little shops selling buns, fried chicken, bubble tea and shaved ice are in college towns,” she said, beyond Asian-American enclaves where the shops are also thriving, like the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, the Bay Area and New York City’s three Chinatowns. Some are franchisees of Asian chains, but many belong to young entrepreneurs who smell opportunity in sugar and sprinkles.
Most of the new creations are based on American treats like sweet coffee drinks, soft-serve ice cream and red velvet cake, said Woojae Lee, an owner and the chief barista of Sweet Moment in SoHo. “But then we add Asian ingredients and Asian creativity,” he said.
Using tiny pens filled with chocolate sauce, Lee paints a baby animal face on each of the shop’s chilled lattes, which are flavored with red velvet, chocolate or green tea and tinted in corresponding colors. (This “cream art,” an offshoot of latte art, was taken to Seoul, South Korea, by the celebrity barista Lee Kang Bin, who paints full-color van Gogh masterpieces and Disney characters on coffee drinks.)
Sweet Moment’s Lee said that in Seoul, where he lived until 2009, competition to come up with the next big treat is fierce: “Every summer, people are looking for something cold that’s new.”
When admiring a parfait of green tea gelato, diced mango and edible paper-sugar butterflies at Oddies Foodies in Hong Kong, or a majestic Jenga honey toast tower at SnoCrave, a Taiwanese-style chain in California, it is hard to believe that ice cream arrived in Asia less than 100 years ago.
Asian diets were never completely dairy-free. In ancient times, the Korean royal household kept cows to supply milk for the court. Both meat and milk were scarce in Japan and China (and sometimes banned by Buddhist edict) but available to the wealthy for special dishes and medicinal purposes.
Milk for mass consumption arrived with British colonizers, who took their addiction to milky tea and creamy custards to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. In 1885, a determined doctor imported cattle to Hong Kong from his native Scotland and established a dairy farm to supply the island with fresh milk. (It’s still standing.)
Soon afterward, canned condensed milk arrived as a milk substitute for colonial expatriates, but Asian consumers took to the stuff and repurposed it in creative ways, such as a sweet drizzle for shaved ice. Mooncakes, popular treats for the lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, were one of the early adopters of Western-style ice cream, replacing lotus seeds and red beans as fillings.
But elaborate frozen desserts are nothing new in Asia: Fluffy shaved ice was first mentioned in Japanese literature about 1,000 years ago. Even then, it was a summer treat flavored with different saps and syrups; later, it was scattered with toppings like red azuki beans, ripe fruit and sweet jellies made with agar, the natural gel harvested from algae. These originals are still popular, like the cendol served from roadside stands in Indonesia, fragrant with pandan and palm sugar.
Shaved ice has steadily been transformed by new ingredients and in new places: milk tea in Malaysia, bananas in Hawaii, grated ube (purple yam) in the Philippines (and in Brooklyn, where Ube Kitchen piles sundaes of frozen ube in dragon fruit bowls at two Smorgasburg food markets). It has recently absorbed flavors such as Oreo and Nutella, swelled into towers and mountains, called “monster ice” in Japan, and been topped with the likes of cookie dough and cheesecake.
According to Daniel Gray, a Korean-American food-marketing consultant who lives in Seoul, these complex desserts match up with Asian culinary traditions, where texture can be as or more important than taste. (Bubble tea, with its pleasingly chewy balls of tapioca, is an excellent example.) Toppings like starchy mochi, slippery lychees and gummy bears are not only tasty and eye-catching, but they also provide the necessary riot of special effects.
“You would never be served plain ice cream in a cup here,” he said. “That would be too boring.”
The aesthetics, too, are an obsession: “Cuteness, presentation and appearance are important here,” Gray said. (Skin care and makeup, as well as desserts, are popular preoccupations for young Koreans of both sexes.)
Bistopping, one of the most-Instagrammed ice cream parlors in Seoul, decorates its cones with pastel Froot Loops, rainbow sprinkles and nonpareils, and sticks giant pink cookies shaped like flamingos, mermaid tails and kissing lips into the ice cream. (This artistic vision has also carried over to the United States: At the cutting-edge New York parlor Ice & Vice, the owners, Paul Kim and Ken Lo, produce pastel “flavors” like Blue, Yellow and Green, and just unveiled a vanilla sundae in a hot-pink cone with a vivid drizzle of raspberry jam, lavender and pink sprinkles, and a deep-red Luxardo cherry.)
Ice cream creations like these have become part of Asian food and visual culture. “What I see day and night is kids holding up cones in one hand and phones in the other,” said Roxanne Dowell, an editor at Sassy Hong Kong, an online English-language guide to that notably food-and-trend-obsessed city. “And the girls make sure to get their manicures in the shot.”
Daisann McLane, a former New York Times travel writer who lives in Hong Kong and guides food tours there, said that posting pictures of iconic foods confers status online — and also locates the traveler on the virtual world map.
“If you see an egg waffle in the shot, you know that’s Hong Kong,” she said. Chilled parfaits of custard and perfect fruit place you at famous Tokyo “fruit parlors” like Takano and Sembikiya. On Thailand’s beaches, ice cream rolls are shot against spectacular oceanic sunsets.
Thai ice cream rolls are a recent import, made to order at places like Sweet Charlie’s in Philadelphia and Frozen Sweet in New York. A variation on ice cream with mix-ins, the rolls start with a creamy base poured onto a freezing-cold metal plate. Candy, cookies and fruit are loaded on, and the vendor uses two sharp spatulas to chop, smash and spread the mixture into a paste. (The rapid, constant hand movements explain why one Thai name for the dish translates to “stir-fried ice cream.”) The frozen cream is scraped off the plate so smoothly that it curls up into a scroll, like wood shavings. The rolls are stacked in a cup, and (of course) even more toppings are deployed on top.
There is nothing especially Thai about ice cream rolls: The base is the same as countless other formulas, and a similar process is deployed at hundreds of Cold Stone Creameries. But because of the vast reach of social media, and because the first images of the process were posted from beach towns in Thailand, “Thai ice cream rolls” have become a global phenomenon.
“Without YouTube, only a few people outside Thailand would know about ice cream rolls,” said Gil Grobe, who shot a video of the process while visiting Ko Phi Phi island in 2015. When he posted it to Facebook, it was viewed 300,000 times in the first two days. So he started a channel dedicated to ice cream rolls, with videos shot in shops around the world and in his own kitchen in Hamburg, Germany, where he has mixed in doughnuts, macarons and Kinder eggs. Some of them have been viewed more than 9 million times.
“Ice cream was never entertaining before,” he said, speculating about the videos’ popularity. “You could post a picture of a cone, but it was static. Now there is the sound of the chopping, the movement of the paddles. It’s the next frontier.”