With each summer seemingly hotter — and longer — than the last, Chinese consumers are increasingly turning to ice cream to beat the heat. While the country’s consumers are accustomed to unique ingredients, this summer’s must-have treats were more artistic than flavorful, as seemingly every scenic site, museum, or historical institution catered to status-hungry shoppers by rolling out social media-friendly ice cream bars.
In the southwestern Sichuan province, for example, the Sanxingdui Museum touted the “earthy” and “bronzed” flavors of its ceremonial mask-shaped ice cream. In the northwestern Silk Road city of Dunhuang, visitors could choose from a strawberry popsicle shaped like a temple or a creamsicle modeled after the nearby Crescent Moon Pool. The sticks were even engraved and could be kept and used as bookmarks.
This combination of ancient history and icy treats isn’t as novel as you might think. Chinese monarchs began experimenting with frozen rice and dairy products as early as 3,000 years ago. In those days, however, most summertime delicacies took the form of chilled drinks, usually a mix of fresh fruit with ice. The first food to resemble what we might think of as ice cream was known as the “crispy mountain.” Developed during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the snack was made by heating a crisped dairy product almost to its melting point, then drizzling it onto a plate in the shape of a mountain and freezing it in ice.
A Tang Dynasty tomb mural shows people carrying a plate of “crispy mountain” treats. Courtesy of Huang Wei
Although popular among the nobility, the difficulty of storing ice made these treats prohibitively expensive for most Chinese. It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that commoners began to have access to chilled products. In a 12th century memoir, the author records a wide variety of chilled treats, including marinated plum water, coconut wine, and kumquat snow bubbles. It was also during this time that ice porridge, osmanthus shaved ice, and milk ice cheese became increasingly popular. Marco Polo himself made note of “milk ice,” a slushy mix of jam and milk that melted in the mouth.
Legend has it that the explorer brought the recipe for this treat home with him to Italy, and that Catherine de Medici took it to France in 1533 when she married Henry II. In the 1600s, England’s King Charles I hired a French chef who knew how to make ice cream; by the end of the century, the concoction was served in cafes and on aristocrats’ tables across Europe and the North American colonies.
Although the recipe was refined and altered over the years, it resembled the desserts popular in Marco Polo’s day in at least one respect: With no way to preserve the ice, it could only be made in small batches on-demand.
That would change in the mid-19th century. In 1851, the American Jacob Fussell set up an ice cream factory in Pennsylvania. Mass production greatly reduced the cost of ice cream and made it popular among the lower classes. In the 1860s and 1870s, the German Carl von Linde invented industrial refrigeration, ushering in a revolution of frozen goods. This was followed by the Swede Gustav de Laval’s invention of the thin cream separator, American Stephen Babcock’s invention of the milk test bottle, and Frenchman Auguste Golin’s high-pressure pumping machine. Together, these technological innovations rocketed ice cream into the industrial age.
Not long afterwards, the treat made its way back to China in a new, Western guise. Seen — not entirely accurately — as a quintessentially “foreign” product, ice cream and the industrial processes necessary to make it came to be treated as symbols of Western civilization by many Chinese. They did not immediately accept the new, “foreign” treat. Urban legends from the time speak of a banquet hosted by a British merchant and attended by the anti-opium crusader Lin Zexu — other, less fanciful versions of the tale substitute the late Qing diplomat Li Hongzhang — at which ice cream was served. Unfamiliar with the dish, Lin mistook the steam emanating from the plate for heat and blew on the ice cream to cool it down. After being laughed at by the merchant, Lin made a point of inviting the man to a banquet of his own, at which he served a dish of piping hot mashed taro, a local delicacy. Unaware of the dish’s temperature, the merchant dug in and was rewarded with scalding burns.
People snack on ice cream at a cold drink store in Shanghai, 1930s-1940s. From Shanghai Library
The first documented record of ice cream in modern China was written by Zhang Deyi, a scholar at Tongwen Hall in Beijing. As a teenager, Zhang was ordered by the ruling Qing government to Europe in 1866, where he encountered a strange food made of eggs, milk, red wine and sugar —blended together with ice. Later, he wrote of the experience in his “Strange Tales from Over the Ocean,” where he referred to it as “ice jelly.”
Also in 1866, Martha Foster Crawford, the wife of a Western missionary, published the first Western cookbook in China, “Foreign Cookery in Chinese,” in which she introduced several types of ice cream to Chinese readers. Even in major cities like Shanghai, however, ice cream remained an imported product consumed primarily by foreigners and the small number of Chinese who dealt with them regularly.
This would not change until the 1920s. In 1927, the American merchant A.P. Henningsen opened the Henningsen Produce Company in Shanghai and began making ice cream bars locally. He was the first manufacturer of cold treats in China. In 1948, the factory was sold to what is now Shanghai Yimin No. 1 Food Factory, which continues to produce blocks and cups of Neapolitan and regular vanilla ice cream today. Admittedly, they’re far less striking than the new-age snacks popular on social media, but ask almost any Shanghainese and they’ll regale you with fond memories from their childhood of eating those bars of unadorned ice cream. We may have far more options nowadays, but sometimes you get an itch only a classic can scratch.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A ceremonial mask-shaped ice cream sold in Sanxingdui, Guanghan, Sichuan province, June 12, 2021. An Yuan/CNS/People Visual)