Some food trends have a way of peaking more than once, and Thai-rolled ice cream is the perfect example. Back in 2015, industry commentators were calling it the next big thing. While it took a few years longer than anticipated to catch on, the global phenomenon has finally hit its stride in the States. From New York City, to California, to Oregon, to Georgia, to Austin, Thai-rolled ice cream shops are opening left and right. For Austin culinary students who haven’t had a chance to indulge in one of the city’s many shops, here’s a breakdown of this popular culinary curiosity.
What exactly is Thai-rolled ice cream?
It’s not hard to see how this frozen treat earned its name. Imagine ice cream rolled up like little rugs and then served in a cup, perhaps with a few colorful toppings and sweet sauce poured on top. But it’s Thai-rolled ice cream’s other moniker, stir-fried ice cream, that reveals the true ingenuity of this confection.
Unlike other ice creams, Thai-rolled ice cream isn’t scooped out of a bucket or pulled from a cold display case. Instead, many shops will actually prepare it to order and, sometimes, they’ll do it right in front of customers. This makes it one of the freshest forms of ice cream you can buy anywhere, Pheng Van, owner of Sota Hot & Cold in Minnesota, told The Splendid Table. The frozen treat is made by pouring liquid ice cream that has been mixed and flavored onto the opposite of a hot frying pan – a frozen cold tray. These steel surfaces, which can stay cool via electricity or liquid nitrogen, can achieve temperatures lower than -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
While liquid is on the cold pan, the chef will add in any ingredients, being careful to cut them small enough that the final product can roll up nicely. Once the liquid hardens into ice cream, it’s spread across the surface of the pan into a thin, typically rectangular sheet. The chef will use a spatula or similar tool to scrape the ice cream off the surface, which rolls into its characteristic shape. The ice cream is then served in a cup, often with generous and creative topping portions ranging from fried dough to candy, fresh fruit, whipped cream and much more.
Rolling on by, or here to stay?
Even in Southeast Asia, the birthplace of the frozen phenomenon, Thai-rolled ice cream is a relatively new fad, dating back to the mid-to-late 2000s. It started as a type of street food. Like hibachi or sushi chefs, there’s something satisfying about watching someone make the food you’re about to eat right in front of you. It elevates the experience, and when served as a street food, has serious spectator value.
There’s also something to be said for the presentation value of Thai-rolled ice cream. Many shops will go the extra mile to use the surface created by perfectly level rolls stacked neatly on their bases. This flat area acts as a palette for more ornate arrangements of toppings than might be possible on the classic ice cream come.
That raises the question: Is Thai-rolled ice cream a new enough take on a favorite to stick around for very long? Only time will tell, but the unique experience of having it made in front of you paired with its presentation seem sufficient enough to differentiate it from the many other ways to eat ice cream. For now, though, it’s an a welcome addition to Austin’s thriving culinary arts scene.