Frozen Desserts with Local Fruit

Penghu Cactus Ice and Yujing Mango Ice

2020 / July

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang

Many travelers make pilgrimages to certain locations just to enjoy a bowl of shaved ice, ice cream, or sorbet made with locally produced fruit. Each and every mouthful offers a fresh taste. Local people are very proud of their frozen desserts, which are an integral part of the history of small towns.

“Cactus ice” is a unique product from the ­Penghu Islands. The elephant ear prickly pear cactus (Opuntia dillenii) grows along the seacoasts of the islands, where it is exposed to strong winds and intense sunlight, yet still produces a sweet and juicy purple-red fruit. Just like the industrious and hardy people of Penghu, who in former times overcame the lack of usable building materials on their islands by taking coral stone from the sea, the cactus has never been limited by its environ­ment.

Cactus ice on the Penghu Great Bridge

Penghu locals often warn visitors to stay away from the cacti for fear of getting pierced by their fine, hair-like spines, which are almost invisible and very hard to remove. Nevertheless, we see one man standing calm and unperturbed before a group of cactus plants, holding a long-handled steel fork in one hand and a long-handled ladle in the other, looking for targets to “get his hands on.”

He is Yi Yingxin, the second-generation owner of Yi-Jia Cactus Ice. About 30 years ago, when he was still studying at Houliau Elementary School, he went on a field trip for his nature class and discovered cactus plants near the school. He felt curious about them and on the eve of Mother’s Day, fearless of the pain from being pricked by the sharp spines, he went and picked several of the fruits for his mother. This special gift opened the way for the Yi family to start selling cactus ice.

“At first nobody dared to eat it,” Yi recalls. The color of cactus ice is very intense, which caused people to shy away. In order to get potential customers to try this novelty, his parents gave away free samples to travelers on the Penghu Great Bridge. Only then did people begin to accept this vividly colored ice product.

The texture of the Yi family’s cactus ice is somewhere between a smoothie and ordinary ice cream. When you take a bite, you can feel the granular texture of crushed ice as well as the stickiness produced by collagen in the cactus. The taste is sweet and sour, with a light herb­aceous flavor and fruity fragrance. Taro is added to upgrade the product. After you finish eating it, there is no stickiness at all.

Experimenting with local ingredients

There are many cactus ice vendors concentrated in the area near the Penghu Great Bridge. “23.5 Cactus Sorbet,” located in downtown Magong City, not only has a shop with a very impressive style, they have developed gelato whose mouthfeel is different from tradi­tional ice cream. The brightly colored frozen desserts are very attractive to customers, and many girls bring out their cell phones to take selfies while holding up their ice cream cones and smiling sweetly.

The original aim of this shop, which now has a notice­able online presence, was in fact simply to recreate the “tapioca pearl ice” (shaved ice with tapioca balls) that owner Xie Yuling enjoyed as a child. But as a result of recommendations from experienced friends, she decided to take the path of developing “cactus pearls,” and has never looked back.

The color of prickly pear juice fades if the juice is heated. The purple-red pearls turn brown after being boiled for six minutes at 100°C, losing the unique hue of the cactus fruit.

To preserve the color, Xie and her partner let their imaginations run free and decided to blend the cactus fruit, complete with peel and seeds, into juice, and boil it down into a concentrate, 26 times more concentrated than the original juice, which they then heated to dry it into powder to make “pearls.” Their experiment worked, but the finished product was quite expensive to prepare, costing NT$7,200 per kilogram of powder.

“It was madness!” Each time Xie thinks back on this journey, she can’t believe it herself. Yet, despite the problems, she always courageously pressed ahead. Because she didn’t want her cactus pearls to end up as a flavoring in inexpensive custom-mixed soft drinks, she decided to instead use them for shaved ice products, scattering the ruby-red pearls on top of the ice so that customers would take special note of these hard-to-make “gems.”

The cactus ice at 23.5 is made simply from fruit juice, water, and sugar, without any added emulsifier. Hence it doesn’t have the thick, sticky texture of ice cream. When you eat a spoonful, you will first feel the solidity and fine granularity of the ice, which quickly turns into fruit juice, leaving a light fruity fragrance in the mouth.

Besides purple-red cactus gelato, the shop also offers a light green seaweed flavor and a light brown fengru tea flavor (fengru is the herb Glossocardia bidens). These three flavors are all made using special local products of Penghu. Back in the day, Xie Yuling decided to try taking some dairy ice cream that she had just made and dipping it into powdered seaweed; the two seemingly contradictory flavors turned out to be surprisingly harmoni­ous. Meanwhile, fengru tea, which has a watery texture, did not seem suited for making ice products, but after Xie spent three days repeatedly boiling and chilling her mixture, it finally became viscous.

With these natural ingredients and complex prepara­tion, costs are naturally high. But Xie has kept her margins very small in order to stay competitive in the market. This is why she is still repaying loans although her shop has been operating for seven years. Even her mother says with a laugh: “When most people open an ice shop, within two years they’re driving a Mercedes Benz, but you’re still paying off debt.” However, even though the shop is not what you could call prospering economically, the optimistic Xie persists in promoting delicious local flavors while also teaching dance part time.

The fresh taste of Yujing mango

You can get a serving of mango shaved ice in every city and county in Taiwan, so what is the particular appeal of the fresh mango ice served in Tainan City’s Yujing District, a well-known mango producing area? When you actually set foot there, you will find that Yujing’s Zhongzheng Road is lined with mango ice shops. They include three branches of “You Jian Bing Pu” (literally “There Is a Shaved Ice Shop”), and its unique handmade mango ice blocks attract many pilgrims each year.

The shop only selects mangoes with sufficient sweetness and fragrance, and uses different mango vari­eties depending on the season. The fresh taste draws back aficionados year after year. Food writer Huang Wan-ling, whom we happen to meet when we visit the shop, makes a special trip to Yujing each summer with her family simply for one of You Jian Bing Pu’s special treats of “Peerless Mango” (mango ice with thick mango juice and green mango on top) and a glass of freshly made mango juice.

“Because they only use fresh ingredients, customers will taste a different flavor every month. It’s like having a love affair with the seasons,” says Huang. She enjoys the changing flavor of mangoes across different seasons. This is very different from the monotonous tastes of synthetic flavorings, which stay the same all year round.

It is tourists from Japan and Korea who most appreciate this “natural flavor.” Even though mangoes exported from Taiwan to Japan and South Korea are considered high-end products, the steaming process that the mangoes undergo to eliminate insect pests degrades their original taste. This is why foreign travelers who come to You Jian Bing Pu and try fresh-cut mangoes always find it an eye-opening experience, and discover that Yujing mangoes have an irresistible fragrance and sweetness.

Red on the tree

Irwin mangoes arrive from the orchards only 90% ripe, so they are placed in a greenhouse for three to five days and only stored in refrigerators after they are completely ripe. The shop owner’s wife, Zhang Xiuling, who is preparing mangoes in the kitchen, selects an Irwin that has some yellow coloring amidst the red and completely peels it with a few deft movements, then cuts it up with a fruit knife.

“Your ices will only taste good if you know how to choose mangoes! Because Irwin mangoes that grow at the top of the tree get an even amount of sunshine all over, the whole fruit is red and they are sweet and fragrant enough to be served over ice. Those with greener peels are used for making mango juice or mango ice blocks. For ice blocks, the mangoes only need to smell good; they don’t need to be so sweet.” As Zhang continues to expound, she puts the mango flesh from near the seed of the fruit into a separate bowl. Because this part has more fiber, it can only be used to make juice.

The Irwin mangoes used at You Jian Bing Pu are all allowed to “go red on the tree.” That is, farmers leave them on the trees to ripen and turn red before picking them. As a result, the number of mangoes harvested changes from day to day. When there are not enough Irwin mangoes, “I combine different types of mangoes based on their characteristics,” explains You Jian Bing Pu’s owner, Jian Ziyu. “For the mango pieces on top of the shaved ice I will use native Taiwanese varieties along with Jinhuang mangoes. The traditional varieties have plenty of flavor, while Jinhuangs are large and fleshy.” Jian adds that when Irwin mangoes hit their peak production season, he uses them for the whole bowl of mango ice.

It all started with Ice Monster

Jian Ziyu admits that the craze for mango ice in Taiwan was started by Ice Monster, the famous shaved ice shop on Yongkang Street in Taipei. In the 1990s there was overproduction of mangoes in Yujing, and prices fell below NT$5 per kilogram, forcing farmers to dump their crops. In response, the central government implemented guidance measures to lower production costs and raise quality, and to form a “mango strategic alliance.” After Ice Monster was established in 1997, mango ice became hugely popular, driving a rise in mango prices, and mango sales increased greatly for Yujing, as for other production areas. Jian says that at present the mango ice shops on Zhongzheng Street in Yujing can use a total of up to two metric tons of mangoes a day.

“Everyone’s mango ice was just mango set on top of shaved clear ice. There’s nothing special about that, so later I used mango to make ice blocks which I shaved, and I put pickled green mango on top,” Jian recalls.

You Jian Bing Pu’s special treat “Peerless Mango” has shaved ice from a mango ice block as the bottom layer. The block has a sweetness of around ten degrees Brix and gives off a light mango fragrance. Thick Irwin mango juice is poured on top of this, and the two layers blend harmoniously. Then come bright green strips of pickled unripe mango, with its sweet-and-sour taste and crispy texture, adding another layer of flavor to the dish. The whole is finished with large chunks of Irwin mango, topped by a scoop of mango ice cream. When you bite down on the juicy, fragrant, sweet mango flesh, “It’s so satis­fying!” says Huang Wan-ling. She counts eating a “Peerless” in summer among life’s great pleasures.

You Jian Bing Pu, which places a premium on freshness, sometimes gets customers who don’t understand mangoes and will mistake the fibers in native mango varieties for strips of plastic or complain that their shaved ice is not fragrant or sweet enough. On such occasions Jian will say in frustration that “their palates have been spoiled by chemical flavorings.” Huang Wan-ling consoles him by saying: “Customers who don’t know what they are about only enjoy the chemical stimulation on their tongues, but epicures prefer to savor the light fragrance of natural mangoes. Only those customers who understand the pleasure of experiencing different mango flavors across the seasons can really be said to know how to appreciate mangoes.” This remark warms the heart of the owner, while also highlighting how precious is the opportunity to eat mango ice right where mangoes are produced.     

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有間氷舗の簡子宇によると、台湾でこれほどマンゴーかき氷が愛されるようになったのは、台北市永康街の氷館(ICE MONSTER)の人気がきっかけになったという。1990年代、台南玉井のマンゴーが生産過剰になり、1キロの値段が5元を下回ったことがあり、農家は収穫したマンゴーを川に捨てなければならないという事態に陥った。中央政府は「生産コスト削減と品質の向上」「マンゴー戦略連盟」などの指導を行なって解決に取り組んだ。そうした中、1997年に台北の永康街にICE MONSTERがオープンし、マンゴーかき氷が大ヒットしてマンゴーの価格が上がったのである。簡子宇によると、現在、台南玉井の中正街に並ぶかき氷店では、合計すると一日に2トンのマンゴーを消費しているそうだ。






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X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!