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    I Scream, You Scream: Shanghai’s Weirdest Ice Cream

    Sixth Tone reviews the good, the bad, and the ugly of unconventional ice cream flavors found at various Shanghai shops.
    May 15, 2020#food

    Chocolate. Durian. Scallion pancake. Crab roe.

    This may look like a mismatched assortment of foods, but in China, they have one disturbing thing in common: They’re all ice cream flavors.

    With inspired creativity and savvy marketing, China’s food manufacturers excel at coming up with off-the-wall snacks and turning them into viral trends. Customers, often snap-happy urbanites, have been known to stand in hourslong lines just to try the latest culinary fad, from milk tea to pastries.

    On a Friday morning, Sixth Tone reporters ventured out in search of the more unconventional ice cream “treats.” While we didn’t find flavors inspired by vinegar or chili oil, five that we did come across left memorable tastes — for better or worse.

    The unanimous victor: Bubble milk tea ice cream

    Who doesn’t like bubble tea? The ice cream wasn’t a drastic departure from the popular beverage sold at street-side stalls and shopping malls across several Asian countries. It was sweet and creamy and included the characteristic chewy tapioca “pearls,” giving the ice cream bar a unique texture.

    Recommended for: play-it-safe types.

    The close second: Durian ice cream

    Durian’s distinct stink can give the much-maligned fruit a bad rap. It’s often banned from hotels and public transportation, and has even been known to cause evacuations when its smell is confused for a potentially life-threatening gas leak.

    But to many in China and elsewhere in Asia, durian has earned a special — if difficult to explain — place of honor. The durian ice cream had no trouble winning over Sixth Tone’s taste testers, with its overpowering but reassuringly familiar flavor, which has been described as resembling anything from toasted nuts to rotten onion.

    Recommended for: anyone with a soft spot for durian.

    Points for creativity and little else: Scallion pancake ice cream

    Scallion pancakes are an enormously popular street food in China. They’re flaky, greasy, and savory. The idea of juxtaposing sweet with salty has become a global food phenomenon, giving way to ice cream flavors like salted caramel and maple bacon.

    To these cute confectionary creations, China’s ice cream makers say: Hold my baijiu.

    Our taste testers described the scallion pancake ice cream as “mostly harmless”: It was an interesting experience, but not one we’d voluntarily repeat. Compared with what follows, however, it was an absolute treat.

    Recommended for: the mildly adventurous.

    #YOEO (‘You Only Eat Once’) award: Calamari ice cream

    There’s really no way to sugar-coat this: It’s fishy-flavored ice cream with bits of dried squid in it. The creamy and sinewy elements did not come together to form a cohesive whole. Our testers had just learned to cope with the raw fishiness of the cream when they encountered a tough, rubbery chunk of squid lurking in the deep.

    We’re honestly not sure if there’s anyone on Earth who might enjoy the flavor. Perhaps Nordic cultures — with the Swedish delicacy lutefisk earning a mention in the region’s “disgusting foods” museum — might be willing to adopt calamari ice cream.

    Recommended for: those on the losing end of a dare.

    The abomination: Crab roe ice cream

    You read that correctly. To be fair, the ice cream bar looks pretty standard — maybe even cute to some — with its red-orange, crab-shaped plastic tray. But the moment you take a bite, your taste buds revolt in horror, and you find yourself in an existential crisis: What sequence of poor decisions led to this point?

    All of our taste testers were traumatized, physically and mentally, by this flavor. Some have yet to recover.

    In the interest of balanced reporting, we’ll say this for the crab roe ice cream: It was indeed crabby. And crappy.

    Recommended for: people with impaired taste buds.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (In-text graphics: From Sixth Tone,, and People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)

    (Header image: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)