Hongkongers taken with matcha soft serve ice cream
Green food is most often associated with fruit and vegetables, but anything green that doesn't come from straight from Mother Nature is not usually that appetising. Judging by the spate of recent photos of swirls of jade-coloured Japanese ice cream on social media, matcha soft serve is one of the exceptions.
Thanks to Via Tokyo in Causeway Bay, the dessert is the hottest frozen treat in town. Whether it is served in a crispy cone; in a dessert bowl with jellies, salty beans, red bean paste and a sweet brown sauce; or as a matcha affogato, the rich ice cream is always a hit.
The shop was opened last year by Kosei Kamatani, owner of Ramen Jo around the corner, and since then it has consistently topped the charts on OpenRice and gathered positive reviews from media and bloggers alike.
"The most important thing is the quality of the matcha," says Kamatani. "It's very high grade. We get it straight from Kyoto, but I can't say which brand obviously - it's a trade secret. It's very expensive.
"Matcha is not just for dessert, but when you combine it with something sweet you get this bitter aftertaste and this kind of distinct flavour that hits you when you first try it. The balance of that is something very interesting to a lot of people. It may not be for kids; it's more of an adult taste."
Matcha, or finely milled green tea powder, is distinctly Japanese. Used traditionally in tea ceremonies, it is now commonly infused in desserts and soba noodles. For those who did not grow up with it, it can be an acquired taste.
Masato Yamamoto, manager of research and product development at City'super's confectionary business, food and beverage business unit, is proud of the fact that the company brought the popular brand, Kasho Chaya, to Hong Kong five years ago. Since then the outlets have been renamed Sweets House Cha Cha.
"Locals have grown to appreciate matcha more. A few years ago, customers would order the original milk flavour or a twirl. But a majority of them order our uji matcha flavour from Kyoto now," says Yamamoto.
The launch of other Japanese-imported chains in Hong Kong has also helped hone people's taste buds for the green tea. Since 2012, two popular chains, Maccha House and Kyoto Matcha Café have expanded to include three branches.
But there is more to the seemingly simple soft serve than meets the eye.
While Kamatani's former venture Yogo Frozen Yogurt - which was at the location where Via Tokyo now stands - gave him some knowledge of how to achieve a particular texture, it took him months of experimenting to achieve the particularly creamy texture that he sought. City'super has invested in an Italian ice cream machine for that purpose. Both insist on using Hokkaido milk.
"Locals' exposure to soft serve used to be limited to McDonald's or a Mister Softee ice cream truck, which are usually from pre-made powder mix," Yamamoto says.
Food blogger Nicole Fung of Thatfoodcray.com agrees. "I find Japanese soft serve in general much more satisfying than any other. It's so rich, creamy and almost buttery." "My go-to spots are Via Tokyo and City'super's Sweets House Cha Cha. Both joints serve legit soft serve that consistently hits the spot."
Kamatani is looking to open a new branch. "I'm interested in expanding and obviously if the right location and market come up I'll definitely look into that," he says.
That comes as good news to foodies, including Fung. "I don't think it's merely a trend. I think people in Hong Kong will always have a soft spot for matcha soft serve, I know I will."