World's Strangest Ice Cream
The Japanese are known for their adventurous taste buds, but when it comes to ice cream, even they have their limits.
“Some years ago we tried selling Chunky Monkey in Japan,” says Ben & Jerry’s “flavor guru” Peter Lind. “But people there weren’t excited about it, because it turned out they didn’t want to ‘eat monkeys.’” (No matter that the ice cream merely contains bananas, chocolate, and walnuts.)
And yet, one man’s monkey is another man’s horseflesh. When we looked around the globe to see how ice cream varies in different countries, we found some funky—and sometimes frightening—flavors, like stinky durian fruit in Taiwan and a faux Viagra in Venezuela. The most shocking one, though, is no better—but perhaps no worse—than the thought of a real-life Monkeys ‘n’ Cream: raw horseflesh, which can be found in at least one ice cream shop in—yes, Tokyo.
No one culture can completely claim ice cream as its own—ice cream historians debate where it was even born. Roman emperor Nero supposedly had his slaves bring snow down from the mountains so that he could have it topped with fruit and honey. A king during China’s seventh-century Tang dynasty liked a version that was mixed with milk. And when explorer Marco Polo came back from China in the 13th century, legend has it that he brought back a sherbet-like concoction.
Today, Americans and Australians eat the most ice cream of anyone in the world, according to market research firm Euromonitor, but almost every country enjoys it—and the cultural interpretations vary according to palates. As you travel into Eastern cultures, for instance, the ice cream tends to be less sweet. “Here we gravitate toward candy and cookies in our ice cream, but other countries gravitate toward fruits, tea, or spices,” says Stan Frankenthaler, the director of culinary development for Baskin-Robbins, which has shops in more than 35 countries. Its 31 flavors change as you travel: a saffron ice cream has been a big hit in the Middle East, while a chocolate-peanut-butter combo has been a dud almost everywhere but the U.S.
Lind, from Ben & Jerry’s, agrees that anything with peanuts or peanut butter underwhelms ice cream fans in other countries—especially in Europe, where hazelnuts are the utility player of nuts. This summer, his company is sponsoring a global contest, called Do the World a Flavor, where people can suggest new, locally inspired flavors. “We’re looking for flavors that will appeal to all of these countries, and it’s surprising how few flavors are really popular everywhere,” Lind says. In Scandinavia, fans have suggested one of their favorites: salty licorice, which adds the faint but horrifying aroma of ammonia to an otherwise unsuspecting scoop of vanilla.
Other flavors sound tempting but don’t always live up to the hype, at least to an American palate. In part of Europe, for instance, floral-based ice cream like lavender or rose is very popular, but Lind says it’s a hard sell here at home. “We made a rose ice cream, using Indian rose water,” he recalls, “and we took it to our scoop shop to have customers sample it.” It was a onetime deal. “One person who tried it said, ‘This tastes like my grandmother’s armpit.’”
Viagra Ice Cream: Mérida, Venezuela
The old-fashioned ice cream social can take a distinctly adult turn, thanks to this offering at the famed Heladería Coromoto ice cream shop in Mérida. The shop isn’t famous for its legions of men lined up outside, though. Instead, it has laid claim to a multiyear streak in the Guinness World Records book for the most ice cream flavors: almost 900 at the most recent count (though only a paltry 70 or 80 are available on any given day). Besides Viagra, you might find the Coke and Diet Coke flavors, chile pepper, and even tuna.
How It Tastes: It may be hard to taste anything beyond the vivid aqua color, meant to evoke the little blue pill; the specific main ingredients are a secret, but are reportedly “natural” plant aphrodisiacs.
Haggis Ice Cream: London
Haggis—the Scottish dish made of sheep innards and traditionally sealed up sausage-style in the stomach—challenges many palates even in its traditional form. But Morelli’s, a shop in Harrods’s famed food hall, pushes that sheep-tissue envelope further by rendering it into ice cream. Ask in advance and Morelli’s will make other comfort-food ice cream too, including Yorkshire pudding or bangers and mash. Not that this would be a huge shock to Brits, who also reportedly love the Seriously Stilton ice cream made by dairy company Churchfields Farms.
How It Tastes: The haggis ice cream is “quite strong,” admits a Harrods spokeswoman, though she assures us that the effect is perhaps mitigated by the ice cream being “blended” rather than “chunky.” Well, that changes everything: bring on the hot fudge!
Lavender Ice Cream, France
Leave it to the French to outclass everybody, even when it comes to an ice cream cone. It’s not unusual here to find flavors evocative of local tastes and aromas, which means a lot of flowers: lavender, rose, jasmine, violets, and poppies. At Fenocchio, a gelateria on the Place Rossetti in Vieux Nice, you can get the floral flavors as well as black olive, rosemary, thyme, and tomato basil.
How It Tastes: Fans find the lavender and rose flavors gentle, even delicate. Ben & Jerry’s “flavor guru” Peter Lind found, when the company tested rose ice cream in Vermont, that Americans were not so impressed. “One guy said, ‘This tastes like my grandmother’s armpit.’”
“Fox Testicle” Ice Cream: Turkey
Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, is made with goat’s milk and an ingredient called salep—which translates, literally, to “fox testicle.” In reality, it’s a flour ground from wild orchid tubers, which presumably bear some resemblance to a fox’s family jewels. The resulting cold treat is pretty much an only-in-Turkey delicacy, since the wild orchids technically can’t be exported. You can buy it at cafés and street carts, especially in Istanbul.
How It Tastes: Dondurma is chewier than classic ice cream—it can be almost taffy-like, sometimes even eaten with a knife and fork. Dondurma melts slowly too and isn’t even frozen (if it were, you might need a Turkish dentist, pronto). Bonus for the queasy: it’s lower in lactose than cow’s-milk ice cream.
Beer Ice Cream: Munich and Alexandria, VA
Tastes great, extra filling? Beer inspires ice cream makers all over the world, it seems, from random beer gardens in Europe to craft-beer establishments in the U.S. It also tends to be seasonal. At Sarcletti’s ice cream parlor in Munich, the Bavarian wheat-beer ice cream comes out for Oktoberfest in September, while Rustico Restaurant in Alexandria, VA, has a following for its summer popsicles—make that “brew pops”—often made from Belgian fruit ales.
How It Tastes: Depends on the beer used. Beer ice cream fans seem to love Guinness ice cream, which has a richer flavor that can go nicely with chocolate. Sarcletti’s owner, Jürgen Elsner, says the key to good beer ice cream is to eat it very fresh: “It becomes more and more bitter when it grows more than one day.”
Salty Licorice Ice Cream: Sweden
Read labels carefully before you order a scoop in Stockholm. Lakrits can look like dark chocolate or even chocolate-chip ice cream, but contains local favorite salmiakki, or salty licorice. At Stockholm ice cream shop Glasshus, the lakrits is actually coal black in color (check your teeth and lips after a cone). In supermarkets, meanwhile, look for the Lakrits Puck—kind of like an Eskimo Pie hockey puck with a licorice coating.
How It Tastes: Even licorice lovers can find this stuff strong-tasting. Salmiakki contains ammonium chloride, a pungent-smelling form of salt.
Durian Ice Cream: Philippines
The spiky-skinned durian is perhaps the most polarizing of all produce: people either love it (as many folks do in Asia) or abhor it for its pungent, sometimes overwhelming aroma. It’s no surprise that Filipinos might like it in ice cream, as their taste in scoops is broader than most. Nestlé Philippines offers a durian flavor, as well as ube (purple yam) and queso (cheese). Local ice cream manufacturer Arce Dairy, found in supermarkets, does durian as well as ice cream flavored with ube, jackfruit (similar in flavor to pineapple), avocado, and cheddar cheese.
How It Tastes: If you’ve always wanted to try durian, this may be the place to start. Fans say it’s sweet, but a mild form of the infamous fruit. Still, chase it with breath mints.
Pineapple Shrimp Ice Cream: Taiwan
Tucked in the fish market at Keelung’s Bisha port, Dr. Ice—also known as Shia Bing Hsieh Chiang—offers a menu of ice cream and shaved-ice treats that sound perhaps more like the makings of nice salad entrées: pineapple shrimp, cuttlefish, peanut and wine ice, or mango ‘n’ seaweed.
How It Tastes: Think of pineapple shrimp as cold bisque and you might love it. Fans say it’s not as seafood-y as you’d think, either. Plus, doesn’t everything taste better with sprinkles? But wait—these sprinkles are dried fish bits or roe.
Raw Horseflesh Ice Cream: Tokyo
Surely not, right? The Japanese are an adventurous lot when it comes to their treats, and ice cream is no different. In the Sunshine City shopping mall of the bustling Ikebukuro section of Tokyo you’ll find Ice Cream City, where you can sample a dazzling (or horrifying) array of flavors, from octopus and snake to “basashi vanilla,” which contains chunks of horseflesh sushi. Sounds too bizarre? Maybe you’d prefer the gyu tan, or cow-tongue sorbet. Not that all the locals go for the exotics: Baskin-Robbins reports that the top flavor at its Japanese branches is good ol’ Strawberry Cheesecake.
How It Tastes: Like vanilla and...something very chewy. It’s been described as a little sweet, but sweet in the venison way. Bonus: horsemeat is very lean, so it’s guilt-free, in its way.
Garlic Ice Cream: Gilroy, CA
This is no surprise in the garlic capital of the world, where the annual Garlic Festival dazzles garlic lovers with food, cook-offs, and even the crowning of a Garlic Queen. You can get a free scoop at the July festival, or buy a scoop the rest of the year at the Garlic Shoppe in the Gilroy Outlet Mall.
How It Tastes: At first taste, it resembles a nice vanilla soft-serve—but the aftertaste is a doozy. “It’s a onetime experience,” admits the Garlic Festival spokesman. “I know of no one who orders three scoops with chocolate syrup and nuts, or has a scoop on their apple pie.”
Bacon Ice Cream: Rehoboth Beach, DE
Anyone who has ever dipped a French fry in a chocolate shake will understand this sweet-and-salty delight. The Ice Cream Store along the boardwalk in Rehoboth, DE, first dabbled in meat ice cream with a pulled-pork sundae, but has since developed a loyal following now with bacon and even its new chocolate-covered bacon. The bacon shake is particularly popular. “We sell 10 bacon milkshakes a day,” says owner Chip Hearn. “For some reason it’s become this cult thing.” The more conservative might prefer the Better than Sex flavor, which features devil’s-food-cake batter and crumbled candy bars.
How It Tastes: Bacon goodness. Hearn swears by the Jersey cows that fuel his ice cream and by “a really strong vanilla that will bring out that bacon taste.”