Lap mei fan is a common dish in Hong Kong, but Alvin Leung's version would make any Chinese grannie frown in disapproval. Instead of the steaming hot, comforting bowl of rice cooked with Chinese sausages - red, glossy, fatty lap cheung and the darker yun cheung (liver sausage), Leung's interpretation, served at his Michelin two-star restaurant Bo Innovation in Wan Chai, is frozen.
'I got the idea from the bacon and egg ice cream served at the Fat Duck [the Michelin three-star in Bray, near London],' says the self-proclaimed 'demon chef'.
'If you make savoury ice cream, you have to start with something people are familiar with, because the idea of something savoury served cold and sweet makes them uncomfortable enough,' he says. 'In England, bacon and egg ice cream is a great idea - it's the perfect comfort food. I thought about what's the most comfortable dish for people in Hong Kong and picked lap mei fan as Chinese people love this dish.'
Leung isn't the only chef in Hong Kong offering savoury ice cream, although what sets him apart is that he makes his own. When Hong Kong chefs want a flavour to serve with their savoury dishes, they turn to Paolo Predonzan, managing director of I-Scream.
'The first request came in 2004, from a chef who wanted two flavours - mozzarella and porcini,' says Predonzan. 'It wasn't technically complicated, but it was hard to understand what the chef wanted. Then I began to understand - they want a balance between sweet and savoury.
'Usually a customer calls to say they need a new flavour - they suggest the flavour and ingredients. One amazing flavour I discovered recently is sake kasu - it's what they get when they ferment rice for sake. It tastes bad, but a Japanese chef asked me to make it into ice cream and it was very nice.'
Leung and Predonzan both say that making special ice creams isn't as simple as adding a savoury flavour to a normal ice cream base: all ice creams need a careful balance of fat (usually cream and egg yolks), water (from milk) and sugar (which prevents hardening too much) to give the right flavour and texture. Leung worked on four versions of his lap mei fan ice cream before coming up with the one he serves.
'With the first, I made lap cheung and yun cheung into an essence and added cream and milk,' he says. 'The problem with that was the yun cheung had a caramelised flavour and, with the liver, it tasted like foie gras ice cream. It's hard getting the lap mei flavours into the ice cream because the cold mutes the taste, but you can't just intensify the flavours by reducing it - it would be too salty. So I added Chinese rose liquor to enhance the flavour - it's one of the main components of lap cheung - that and soy sauce.
'The texture was also difficult - made in a standard ice cream maker, it was too hard because of the saturated fat. For the second version, I decided to remove the fat, but that took away the flavour and people couldn't tell what kind of ice cream it was. For the third version, I left in the fat but took out most of the yun cheung and I made it into a parfait - the texture is different from ice cream so it worked okay.'
For his fourth version, Leung went molecular by using liquid nitrogen. 'I put [the ice cream base] in the liquid nitrogen to super-cool it and harden it,' he says.
'I then put it through a blender to make it into a powder, and serve it with rice krispies. I keep in the fat because that's where the flavour is, but now you get less of it because it's a powder.'
Predonzan takes a more rigorously scientific approach.
'Gelato is based on sugar because it's an anti-freezing agent,' he says. 'You can't technically make the ice cream with less sugar - it's necessary for the texture. If you put in the average amount of sugar and it's too sweet, you can use a different sweetener that has the same or more of the anti-freezing power of sugar, but it's less sweet - dextrose. I work with four kinds of sugar to get the right consistency and sweetness.
'Adding just a little more salt can add flavour. For example: bacalau [dried salt cod] - in Italy, we have a recipe for a bacalau dish with milk. So the flavour [for ice cream] is done already because ice cream has its base in milk and we know from the dish that milk and bacalau go perfectly together. For the ice cream, we added the fish in a quantity that we thought would be okay but the taste wasn't right. We found that we had to add more salt - just a little - less than 1 gram of salt per litre, but that small amount really enhanced the taste. It's like with cooking - the balance of salt is very important.'
Predonzan's savoury flavours are incorporated into dishes of anchovy sorbet with Caesar salad (by Roland Schuller, now chef at The Drawing Room in Causeway Bay) and prawn cocktail with guacamole gelato (for a workshop by the Hong Kong Chefs Association).
Gianni Caprioli, executive chef at Isola in Central, makes dishes of fresh tomato soup with buffalo mozzarella and basil gelato; shrimp, tomato and Roman broccoli risotto with saffron risotto; and green pea soup with mascarpone and goat cheese ice cream with summer truffle.
'I love the combination of hot and cold,' the chef says. 'When you eat pasta with pesto, the pasta is hot but the sauce is cold - so tomato soup with basil ice cream is not too different. It gives temperature contrast - you first taste the hot soup, then the pesto ice cream starts to melt and add more flavours.
'Using savoury ice cream is not something you can do all the time,' he says. 'It doesn't always work. Savoury ice creams can be difficult to work with due to the sweetness. But it's adjustable - with the green pea soup, it's 300cl of soup and only 50cl of mascarpone and goat cheese ice cream - it's not 50:50 - it's just enough to sharpen the dish.'
Caprioli's favourite is one created for a wine tasting. 'Parmesan cheese ice cream made with an excellent chicken stock base and 24-month aged parmesan. I served it with pear bread and it was just amazing.'
Despite tempting sounding dishes like this, customers are not rushing to I-Scream's retail outlets to buy litres of savoury flavours, Predonzan admits.
'We've tried selling parmesan ice cream, but it doesn't work,' he says. 'Customers try it but never buy.'
Perhaps it's the intensity of flavour, which can be good in a refreshing wild berry sorbet or a rich hazelnut gelato, but would probably be too much eaten as a whole scoop of anchovy sorbet. But Predonzan says the intensity is deliberate, and just as important in savoury flavours as sweet ones.
'The main thing with ice cream is having enough flavour,' he says. 'You don't want the customer to say, 'What is this? Oh, I think it's almond.' If they do, it's too weak.'
Predonzan estimates he's made 60 savoury flavours over the years. Foie gras is the most difficult and his favourite is saffron. 'It's technical, not personal,' he says.
'If I had to say what my favourite flavour is for taste, I would say chocolate. But I like saffron because it's the only one where you can have it in a cone and eat it like that without a problem. Porcini is nice, but you wouldn't want to have more than one spoonful. With saffron, you can eat the whole scoop.
'In ice cream, we look for three things: perfect taste, texture and look. Saffron is soft and smooth, it has a strong taste and it's the perfect colour - to me, it's the perfect product.'