From big foot to doll face: ice creams to keep cool

As the muggy, hot season descends on Shanghai, thoughts turn to cool refreshment.

AS the muggy, hot season descends on Shanghai, thoughts turn to cool refreshment. And when it comes to iced treats, from gelatos to sidewalk popsicles, consumers are spoiled for choice.

Frozen desserts like ice cream and sorbet have existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. The ancient Greeks mixed snow with honey and fruit, the Persians served Faloodeh, a sorbet-like dessert of thin noodles in a semi-frozen syrup of sugar and rose water. The Romans flavored snow with fruits and juices.

China, too, was among the earliest purveyors of summer rescues.

It is believed that Marco Polo returned to Italy from China over 1,000 years ago with a recipe similar to today’s sherbet that mixed ice with juice and milk. The creation evolved into ice cream in the 16th century under the hand of Catherine de Medici’s chef.

But even longer ago, frozen treats were widely popular in China. In the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and Warring States Period (476-221 BC), the privileged rulers and warlords built cellars to store the large blocks of ice cut from frozen waterways in the winter. Ice was used to chill wine and keep foods fresh. By the end of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), people discovered that the nitrate mined for making gunpowder would absorb heat when dissolved in water. That enabled water to freeze, making ice available in summer.

Merchants started adding sugar into the ice to attract customers. In the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), fruits and juices were added. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), milk was incorporated into frozen desserts as a precursor to today’s ice cream.

Ice was even a form of bribe in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Local officials would offer money to government officials in Beijing to buy ice (bing jing) in summer and charcoal (tan jing) in winter.

Emperors would also give gifts of ice to officials in accordance with their ranks in the summer. Royals and aristocrats enjoyed more complicated frozen desserts, while the hoi polloi had to settle for flavored shaved ice in the summer.

Xuehualao, a traditional sorbet

Xuehualao, which translates as “snowflake junket,” was a traditional Beijing frozen dessert born in the imperial court of the Ming Dynasty.

In summer, the ice stored from winter was crushed into flake-like pieces, then mixed with honey, sour plum juice and fruit preserves for a very refreshing taste of coolness.

When xuehualao was popularized and introduced to the general public, street vendors would place a metal bucket inside a wooden barrel filled with crushed ice.

When making xuehualao, milk, water and sugar were mixed in a metal bucket and turned so fast that the water droplets would freeze.

Vendors used a bamboo stick to constantly scrape ice from the inner wall until the texture took on the texture of congee.

In the old days, for children of poor families, sharing a bowl of xuehualao with siblings was a happy summertime event.

Childhood memories

In Shanghai where a scoop of gelato costs 30 yuan (US$4.3) and a chocolate ice cream cone costs more than 50, the range of ice cream flavors is constantly becoming more dazzling.

But for many Chinese, some ice creams of yesteryear were more modest but nonetheless special in childhood memories.

Here are some vintage Chinese ice creams that generations have grown up with, some of which are being resurrected in a wave of nostalgia.

Snow bricks

Ice cream has been produced in Shanghai since the 1920s. In the 1950s, the Bright Diary started to make what was called a “snow brick,” a square vanilla ice cream bar that is still popular today. The price has remained very affordable, with most supermarkets selling the bars for 4 or 5 yuan.

Traditional popsicles (lao binggun)

Old-style popsicles dominated the Chinese ice cream market in the 1990s. The inexpensive popsicles were made of simple sugar, with no added flourishes. Today, popsicles are available in different flavors, like fruits, mung bean and chocolate.

Flaked ice

This frozen treat is traditionally sold in plastic bags. Flakes of ice costing 50 cents come in flavors such as peach, strawberry and mango.

Doll face ice cream

The doll face popsicle is still remembered fondly by people born in the 1980s and 1990s. It featured simple vanilla face with chocolate hair, eyes and mouth. This ice cream can still be found in some markets today.

The traffic lights

This is a fruit popsicle with three colors that resemble traffic signals. The green part on top comes with a crunchy shell.

The torch

Produced by Yili Group, the torch is a giant ice cream cone with chocolate shell. It comes in vanilla and chocolate.

The bitter coffee bar

The bitter coffee bar by Yili was a hit in the 1990s. It featured coffee-flavored ice cream with a chocolate shell. Not too sweet but very refreshing.

The big foot

Similar to the doll face popsicle, the big foot bar was made from vanilla, chocolate or coffee ice cream, shaped like a foot.

The Hawaiian

When it’s really hot outside, the Hawaiian is here to save the day. The big, round pineapple flavored popsicle has a hollow center filled with ice milk. One needs a small spoon to scoop out the center first before devouring the fruity shell.

The green tongue

It may not sound very appetizing, but the green tongue popsicle by Wall’s was very popular when it was released in 1998. The soft, bendable and jelly-like popsicle is in a refreshing apple flavor.

The corn

Also by Yili Group, the corn was a corn-flavored ice cream with a thin layer of waffle wrapped outside. To look more real, the waffle even has corn prints.

The three-color cup

This is a classic cream ice cream cup with three flavors in three colors: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. You can each flavor one by one or mix them together to create a new flavor.

Dongbei daban (“big brick from the Northeast”)

The dongbei daban was a cream popsicle that originated in the 1990s. It came in vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. The old treat has had somewhat of a comeback in recent years, with vendors selling it on the streets in simple packaging.

The seven dwarfs

In the spirit of sharing the best with friends, the seven dwarfs was a bag of seven small fruit flavored popsicles that one could share with classmates after school.

The little pudding

The little pudding was one of the first mini-sized ice creams. It’s super creamy and smooth.

Suisuibing crushed ice

Produced by Wang Tang, suisuibing fills a thin, gourd-shaped plastic tube with different flavored juices, which can be frozen and broken apart to eat as a popsicle.


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