Iced confectionery makers are shaking things up with outlandish flavours and funky techniques. Anneliese O'Young gets the scoop
PEOPLE IN HONG KONG know what to do when the temperature and humidity rise: travel through air-conditioned shopping centres and covered walkways, seek shade under trees and awnings and eat lots of ice cream.
Whether it's Mister Softee's soft-serve, mango or coconut ice cream at Hui Lau Shan dessert shops or cups of Dairy Farm's ube (purple yam) flavour at convenience stores, there's no shortage of options.
And to attract more customers, some ice cream makers are putting new spins on the frozen treat.
This is a formula that Lab Made in Tin Hau has put to good use. The shop, which is the first to serve liquid nitrogen-made ice cream, was opened by two former pharmacists. Ice cream paste, made at the research and development unit of its Kowloon Bay factory, is combined with liquid nitrogen freezing it in less than a minute and giving off a dramatic, smoky vapour.
Lab Made is so popular that a second branch will open later this year, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
"As Hongkongers, we are lucky because we understand the market and knew there would be interest in a product like this," says company director Ronnie Cheng Hong-wang who, with his girlfriend (and business partner), learned about the product while working in London.
"What we do is not just about the smoke. It is important to maintain quality and be creative," he says.
"In our experience, Hongkongers like to have sweets but not necessarily [saccharine] things. Instead of super-sweet flavours, they want a deep and intense flavour.
"It took us about six months to figure out how to create the ice cream. It was a process of trial and error … like a scientific experiment."
Almost a year after its launch, the shop in Tin Hau, which is open from Tuesday to Sunday, is doing a roaring trade, selling 200 to 300 ice creams just at the weekend.
The shop doesn't have "signature" items, as the menu of four flavours changes every two weeks. But the staff, dressed in white T-shirts that resemble lab coats, still have their favourites.
"The Hong Kong crispy toast was a hit as it is a unique Hong Kong taste," says operations manager Vincent Wong Hon-kit. "Typically, the ice cream is smooth, but by using liquid nitrogen, we can play with the texture and create something crisp yet smooth at the same time.
"We also do special flavours for particular dates. When it was Halloween, we had a flavour called muddy graveyard, which was a hit. The 'mud' was an Oreo cookie and we even had an edible tombstone [on top]. At the request of a customer, we also launched an English high-tea menu: crème brûlée, Bakewell tart, Earl Grey and sticky toffee pudding."
Similarly, a handful of Italian gelato makers are finding that customers are receptive to offbeat flavours. Gelato essentially has less fat and air than ice cream and is served slightly warmer.
I-Scream founder Paolo Predonzan, for example, has created a line of flavours that includes not just traditional Italian ones, such as hazelnut and chocolate, but also red bean, black and white sesame, and Japanese passion fruit.
At Bibini Nice-Cream Gelato in Sai Kung, Jacopo Contiero serves items such as durian and milk tea gelato, and Yakult and yuzu sorbets.
"Gelato is an emotional thing," says Contiero, a chemistry graduate who grew up in Brescia, Italy.
He says that as a teen, he worked a summer job at a gelateria at Lake Garda, the country's largest lake. "[Gelato] reminds me of being a kid, working in a shop and having fun. This is what gelato is about."
Contiero arrived in Hong Kong five years ago as a 21-year-old with his Hong Kong wife, whom he met in Budapest. With the economy struggling in Italy, he was ready to take a chance on Asia. He thought Italian food in the city was lacking in both quality and affordability, and decided to throw his hat into the ring. He runs several restaurants and has franchised Bibini in Shenzhen and Xian.
"I chose Sai Kung [for the flagship] because it reminded me of Brescia, with its seaside and promenade. It took time to build the business, but seeing that I like to make gelato, it was great."
Contiero peppers his speech with Cantonese words to describe his creations, which include coconut mango gelato (inspired by a visit to Hui Lau Shan) and yuzu (made from a type of citrus, which is fresh and clean-tasting, making it perfect for summer).
"People ask me what my favourite is. Chocolate, for sure," he says. "There is nothing better than chocolate. But the durian, it's perfectly smooth and creamy with little or no smell. In the summer, it's our most popular flavour."
Meanwhile, like Lab Made, ice cream chain XTC, the first made-in-Hong-Kong gelateria, likes to shake up its menu every so often.
"People are interested in natural, quality products - and at XTC, we bring new flavours together [while giving] continuity to famous flavours," says Georgie Riley, a Scot who took over the firm from the Canadian founder who opened it in 2001.
"I like the variety," says Riley, "and every four months, we change our seasonal list and add 20 flavours." These include lemon and passion fruit, calamansi (a small citrus commonly found in the Philippines), as well as Thai lemon grass and coconut.
Recently, XTC has been concentrating less on retail shops, and is moving into supermarkets and delicatessens, while also focusing on wholesale and speciality goods such as horseradish and balsamic gelato, which was created for a restaurant.
"It's nice working with a happy product," says Riley. "I am interested to see other people's products and the flavours they create.
"What we have created is a Hong Kong product which would not sell anywhere else in the world," she says. "Here at XTC, we enjoy creating new local flavours as that is what our customers want."
We all scream for ice cream
Bibini Nice-Cream Gelato
Ko Fu House, 58-72 Fuk Man Road, Sai Kung, tel: 34816989
Lab Made Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Laboratory
6 Brown Street, Tai Hang, tel: 2670 0071
• 45 Cochrane Street, Central, tel: 25410500
• KP-01Star Ferry Terminal, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2368 3602
• B2 Hysan Place, 500 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2870 3029
• Shop 1104, 1/F IFC Mall, 1 Harbour View Street, Central, tel: 2234 7281
• Great Food Hall, Basement, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, tel: 2918 9986