Snapshots from Asia: Swirly, Psychedelic Ice Cream Bread

Editor's note: Wan Yan Ling, aka the Grocery Ninja, is in Asia over winter break. She checks in with a Snapshots from Asia piece filed from the sweltering heat of Singapore.

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You often hear about turf wars in relation to street gangs, but here in sweltering Singapore, turf wars are fought by geriatric ice cream men jostling for favorable positions along busy streets. These men show up on motorbikes with dry-ice-filled metal carts attached, staking their claims on prime real estate. With a giant umbrella for shelter from the relentless heat, they display their wares—airtight containers to keep sugar cones and wafers crisp despite the island's 99 percent humidity, loaves of cottony, rainbow-hued bread, and little Dixie cups—as well as a menacing butcher's knife and plastic chopping board.

Aside from the usual Neapolitan flavors, local favorites include honeydew, mango, durian, sweet corn, and taro, a potential headache for the indecisive solved by opting for the "everything" flavor, where all the flavors are mixed (much like a tropical tutti-frutti but tasting, really, of watered-down durian—testament to the king of fruit's pervasiveness).

You can imagine the hard time dieters have in Singapore. Even if you're able to resist the first cart on the street, you may not escape the other 15, especially if everyone else around you is slurping, licking, and chomping with blissed-out expressions on their faces.

If you falter, the old man will remove a cardboard-encased block of ice cream about the length of your forearm from his cart and lop off a generous soap bar–size hunk—cardboard and all—with his trusty cleaver. He'll then ask, "Wafer or bread?"

Opt for wafer, and he'll slip the ice cream out of its cardboard housing and in between two thin, biscuit wafers. Choose the latter, and the ice cream will be handed to you wrapped in a fluffy slice of swirly, psychedelic bread—very much like an ice cream sandwich, only with bread instead of cookies (so you can justifiably make a proper meal of it).

But what if you wanted a cone or cup? These two options involve the default "everything" flavor. Request either, and the old man will put aside his cleaver, pull on a rustling plastic glove, and dig deep into his metal cart with what looks like a melon baller. He'll then proceed to fill your cone or cup with some 15 scoops of "everything."

As recent as ten years ago, these old men made their ice cream from scratch, hand-churning the stuff and peppering the "everything" (which was probably just a clever use of food coloring then) with chopped-up bits of atap chee (palm fruit), the chewy "flesh from the young seeds of the mangrove plant Nypa fruticans" that had been soaked in rose syrup. These days, the ice cream is likely to be supplied by commercial ice cream makers Wall's, Magnolia, or King's. If the food gods are smiling on you though, you may just chance upon a vendor who still adds chopped-up bits of atap chee to his "everything." Go ahead and ask, "Uncle, is there atap chee in there?" IMHO, it blows stale brownie bits out of the water and is definitely worth seeking out.

Note: "Uncle" and "Auntie" are terms of respect for the elderly in Singapore and do not denote familiar relation.