Summer in the City explores what summer means to us around the world.
Sugar and ice are all kinds of nice, especially when it’s hot outside. Across centuries, cultures and continents, people have used this simple alchemy to stave off the summer heat and the equatorial sun.
As early as 500 BC in what is now Iran, the Persians were storing winter snow in traditional icehouses, which they used to craft the first iterations of frozen desserts (widely thought to be a precursor to faloodeh). China soon developed its own methods, packing buffalo milk into snow for its sweet-toothed emperors. As the world opened up to trade and commercial refrigeration took flight, nation after nation developed its own iced treats – concoctions that are now brain-freezed into the childhood memories of generations.
To give you a mere taste of the world’s wonderful diversity of frozen desserts, Culture Trip has scooped up this global selection.
Many Asian countries have their own version of shaved ice, milk and a mishmash of toppings, but few are as vibrantly violet (or customisable) as halo-halo. Some vendors use leche flan (caramel custard), sweetened banana or sago pearls (balls of spongy starch grown in Southeast Asia), while others dare to sprinkle on cheese and cornflakes. The name translates as ‘mix-mix’ – whatever you add, the idea is to stir it all together into one delicious, frozen mush.
It was early Japanese settlers who introduced a version of this dessert called kakigori to the Philippines in the 19th century, mixing shaved ice with the islands’ bountiful harvest of mungo and kidney beans. After World War II, the newly independent nation took control of its sweet treat’s destiny: adding ube (purple yam) ice cream to give it its trademark violet hue.
Açaí bowls have roots beyond the realm of health influencers. This palm fruit grows deep in the Amazon rainforest and has been used as a calorie-rich meal staple by local communities for hundreds of years (often eaten with rice). It took Brazil’s more cosmopolitan south to mash it into a purple pulp, top it with granola and bananas and serve it for breakfast. Much to the horror of northerners, city slickers also add sugar to turn it into a dessert.
In Brazil’s major cities the berries are bought frozen, as suppliers need to keep them fresh during the long journey from the jungles. When blended, the iced berries take on a velvety, almost slushie-like consistency.
Those in São Paulo should head for Açaí Mooca, a colourful snack bar with a delicious and nutritious classic bowl.
This adult treat is part dessert and part digestif, made by pouring a shot of vodka on lemon sorbet. It’s a simple pleasure that’s popular in dining rooms from Belgium to Argentina, with strong ties to France. Post-war posters suggest that Coupe Colonel is best enjoyed with a Russian cigarette, hinting at its links to high-society indulgence.
The lemon sorbet should be smooth, while the vodka should not be overpowering (unless you want it to be).
Soak up one of these after chowing down on a hearty meal at Le Coupe-Chou in Paris.
Iran is credited as the birthplace of frozen desserts, yet it didn’t develop its own version of what we know as ice cream until the 1920s. Local entrepreneur Akhbar Mashti’s groundbreaking treat was such a hit that his recipe has become the traditional Persian standard.
Iran’s plentiful supply of saffron gives bastani sonnati (literally ‘traditional ice cream’) its vibrant yellow hue. In fact, this decadent dessert takes a lot out of the country’s natural larder: rosewater, pistachios, sheep’s milk and salep – a flour made from wild orchids that gives it a stretchy consistency (similar to booza) – all contribute to a distinct flavour and silky mouthfeel. It is best enjoyed when generously sandwiched between two thin wafers.
You can visit the original Akhbar Mashti Bastani stall in Tehran, a tiny hole-in-the-wall near Tajrish Square, which now is run by Akhbar’s son.
Many South Koreans share the childhood nostalgia of being dwarfed by this gigantic mound of shaved ice, condensed milk and the most essential topping: red beans. These legumes are simmered in sugar water for hours to achieve optimal mushiness, creating a delightful contrast of textures. Patbingsu is often garnished with tteok (chewy rice cakes) and a fine-grain powder called misugaru. Remove the red beans (‘pat’) and you’ve got bingsu.
These days, this dessert has become a feast for the eyes as well as taste buds, with chains like Sulbing creating bigger, bolder bowls in an effort to grab a spot on people’s Instagram feeds. If black sesame or mango cheese flavour isn’t to your liking, Mealtop has some of the best traditional patbingsu in Seoul.
The year was 1904 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and 23-year-old David Strickler had taken a part-time job as an assistant pharmacist at his local drugstore. Before soda shops and jukeboxes, America’s hip young things mingled at these establishments for their ice cream sundaes. A friendly competition ensued, in which Strickler was challenged to create a new version. That’s when he reached for a banana and changed dessert history.
Banana splits may look a little chaotic, but there’s strict method to the original. The fruit must be cut in half lengthwise, with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream placed in between – this is then drizzled with chocolate, strawberry and pineapple syrup, respectively. It’s topped with whipped cream, sprinkled with nuts and the all-important cherry (the hallmark of the original sundae) perched on top.
Step into Philadelphia’s old-timey ice cream parlour Franklin Fountain and dive into Dr Dovey’s Classic Banana Split. Don’t forget to tip your soda dispenser.
You know school’s back in session in Mexico when you hear the clinking carts of raspados vendors. Children dash outside their classrooms for these cups of shaved ice drizzled in syrup, in flavours like tamarind, chamoy (salted and pickled ume plums with chilli) and rompope (Mexican eggnog). Parents may take some comfort knowing these are made with real ingredients, with some versions even piling fresh fruit on top – though the lashings of condensed milk often undo the fruit’s good work.
Raspado is Spanish for ‘scraped’, denoting the big, solid block of ice that vendors shave off using a scoop. This isn’t a sight unique to Mexico; Colombia’s version comes with wafer cookies, while Panama’s vendors liberally pour on malt powder.
Granita is such a passionate topic in Italy that its doctors spent the better part of the 16th and 17th centuries arguing whether something so delicious could actually be good for you. This did not stop artisans perfecting recipes over hundreds of years, resulting in a refreshing array of regional varieties.
One of the most indulgent is Rome’s Granita di Caffe con Panna. Strong espresso is added to crushed ice and vigorously stirred. This granita is then scooped into a glass with a generous dollop of whipped cream on top. The texture should be slightly coarse, giving the ice crystals time to melt in your mouth.
When in Rome, head to La Casa del Caffe Tazza D’oro for a post-sightseeing pick-me-up.
This novelty dessert finds its roots in 1960s Mannheim, Germany, where Italian chef Dario Fontanella squeezed vanilla ice cream through a potato ricer, creating strands in the shape of pasta noodles. Since then, the country’s eiscafes have slathered their own ‘noodles’ in strawberry sauce, topped with freshly grated white chocolate ‘parmesan’ for extra flair. It’s cartoonish, it’s a hit with kids and does what any good dessert is made to do: it makes you smile.
Brighten your Berlin trip at Eis Lanzarno, where Spaghetti Eis noodles have been made using a special machine since the 1970s. It melts quickly, so slurp fast!
The cries of India’s kulfiwallahs guide patrons towards some of the creamiest ice cream in the world. Traditionally, kulfi is a labour of time and patience, made by simmering milk, sugar and flavourings for around four hours and stirring constantly to ensure it doesn’t stick. This slow reduction thickens and caramelises the mixture, giving it a rich sweetness. The sultans of the Mughal Empire are said to have hungrily approved.
Nowadays, many vendors use machines and cornstarch to speed things along – yet what are constants in these modern times are the traditional flavours. Classics include rose, pistachio or mango tilla kulfi (on a stick) or faluda kulfi (in a bowl).
The ice cream of the future is found at Kulfiano in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, served inside a whole mango. Delicious.
Culture Trip’s Summer in the City explores what summer means to us around the world. Discover, among other delights, unlikely summer retreats, US state fairs, the great British seaside and how to re-create an Italian Job-style road trip.