Serious Eats: Sweets
The Scoop: On Taro Ice Cream, I Love You
Editor's note: Every weekday in July, the Serious Eats editors and staff will serve up their thoughts on everything from sprinkles to soft serve. It's all the ice cream you want, with no brain freeze.
If I could go back in time and give my prepubescent self a good talking-to, I'd tell her, among other things, to better appreciate her trips to Taiwan (mostly Taipei) to visit her grandparents, relatives, and anything else related to her parents' home country. Yeah, you have to endure a butt numbing 17-ish hour plane ride to get there from New York, and once you arrive you're foisted into a land that, during the summer, feels like a sweaty armpit and is full of people you can't understand and signs you can't read*. But when you're an adult, you'll find out plane tickets to Taiwan cost a bluhjillion dollars and you have no idea how lucky you are that your parents are paying these bluhjillion dollars to get you—you ungrateful child—to the opposite side of the world.
* Whenever people think I can speak Mandarin, I laugh, then quietly imagine myself curling into the fetal position out of everyone's sights. My parents tried to teach me, but I revolted by absorbing almost nothing, something I am feebly and quite unsuccessfully trying to correct in my mid-20s. Only a handful of words from my childhood have stuck with me to this day, most prominently, "da pi gu."
Also, Taiwan is awesome. It's where I was introduced to taro ice cream (called 芋仔冰; "ō͘-á-peng" in Taiwanese; "yùzǎibīng" in Mandarin), although when I was a kid I didn't appreciate it. Taro was my mom's flavor of choice whenever we went out for ice cream in Taiwan—a frequent occurrence when you mix kids with oppressively humid environments. However, my Americanized self didn't appreciate the glory of the purple-speckled tuber; I'd shun my mom's scoop, finding the flavor a bit odd, and instead go for something familiar like mint chocolate chip. (I didn't grow up an adventurous eater. Thank god I eventually got on the right path—the path to eating everything.)
The flavor of taro ice cream isn't that odd, but if you've never had it before, it is...different. I could tell you it tastes a bit nutty, a bit sweet potato-ey, a bit vanilla-y, a bit starchy, a bit floral, but those descriptions won't come together until you try it. If you've never had taro-flavored anything before and you have trouble finding taro ice cream (I poked around a few Chinese supermarkets in Manhattan's Chinatown and only found taro popsicles, aside from one sad, freezer-burned carton of taro ice cream), try a taro-flavored drink from the ever-expanding empire of bubble tea shops. Admittedly, taro powder-flavored drinks don't taste like real taro—it's kind of like comparing the flavor of mint extract to fresh mint leaves—but with the sweet and creamy combo, it's comparable to melted taro ice cream. Of course, you should try dishes with real taro in them too; my favorites appear at dim sum, like taro cake and fried taro. (And while I'm talking about "stuff made of taro that I love," a bag of Terra's taro chips in my grasp is an empty bag of taro chips by the day's end.)
My affinity for taro ice cream grew when I started living in New York City, where the flavor, although not widespread, is at least easy to get at Sundaes and Cones, where I usually pair a scoop of taro with their black sesame. Sundaes and Cones makes their taro ice cream with a mix of mashed taro and powdered taro flavor, and it's gooooood. Chinatown Ice Cream Factory may be more famous for Asian-inspired flavors, but I highly recommend Sundaes and Cones instead.
I don't know where to get the best taro ice cream in Taiwan, but while sifting through the Internet I read that Dajia District in Taichung is especially famous for taro, and Meifang popped up as a popular taro ice cream and popsicle shop in Taichung. If you've had it, do let me know how it is. I don't see myself visiting Taichung anytime soon, but next time I visit Taipei, I have my eyes set on this ice cream "burrito" filled with pineapple, taro, and peanut ice cream.
Who else loves taro ice cream?
About the author: Robyn Lee is the editor of A Hamburger Today and takes many of the photos for Serious Eats. She'll also doodle cute stuff when necessary. Read more from Robyn at her personal food blog, The Girl Who Ate Everything.