A good cook views ice cream much as a painter views a blank canvas, as pure potential, bursting with tempting possibilities. Once you get the basic recipe down—a handful of ingredients added to milk or cream—you’re free to flavor it with just about anything you like.
Nearly anything can be used as an ice cream flavoring, and nearly everything has. A shop called La Casa Gelato, in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers an amazing 218 flavors at any given time, ranging from hot-pepper chocolate to tofu.
What the vast majority of those flavorings have in common, though, is that they are sweet. That’s the way we in the Western world like them.
The Japanese see things a little differently. For them, the sky’s truly the limit when it comes to flavoring ice cream. Whether sweet or savory, animal, vegetable, or even mineral, just about any ingredient is worth a try.
At the tame end of the spectrum are ice creams flavored with some kind of vegetable matter. That’s not so hard to swallow. Even if a given flavoring is a little, let’s say, unexpected, it can’t really be that big a leap from strawberries or walnuts or bananas to some other plant matter. Or can it? Corn, potato, wasabi, taro, tomato, even fried eggplant—any of those flavors might turn up in the frozen desserts section of a Japanese grocery.
But it’s when you venture into the realm of fish and meat that things begin to get scary. A host of sea creatures have made it into the Japanese ice cream repertoire, to the point that if you’re not careful, your sundae might include a scoop of something that tastes like octopus, for example, or shrimp, or whale, oyster, abalone, crab, eel, or tuna.
After the finned, shelled, and tentacled categories, what’s to stop you from heading straight into the world of mammals? Who could possibly turn down a dish of refreshing ox tongue-flavored ice cream on a sweltering afternoon? Or horse? Don’t miss out on the reptiles—pit viper, anyone? And if snake doesn’t strike quite the right chord, might we suggest two scoops of chicken wing instead?
Completing the menu are myriad flavors that simply defy categorization. Miso, rice straw, cypress, noodle, soy sauce, lettuce-and-potato, wasabi—the list goes on and on, each one more difficult to imagine than the last. Then again, that’s probably what people thought the first time they heard “peanut butter swirl ice cream with fudge chips, cookie dough, cherries, and licorice jellybeans, topped with pineapple sauce and tutti-frutti sprinkles.”