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Ice Cream is Rooted in Ancient China

"If you’ve been waiting for an invitation, this calligraphy is it. Commissioned by Facebook, this is a hand-lettered design for a poster. Quote is Facebook mine "

- Massimo Vignelli

The history of ice cream can be traced back to the Chinese some 3,000 years ago, a time when the emperors were some of the fortunate people who could enjoy such a treat. Of course, the ancient form of ice cream was different from what it is today, but it has evolved over time through different recipes. In the olddays, huge ice blocks, formed in winter, were heavily sought after and stowed away. In particular, the Chinese imperial palace would have these blocks of ice stored in the basement ready for use with the arrival of summer’s heat. It is commonly known that potassium nitrate (saltpeter) has been used as a major ingredient in producing gunpowder since ancient times. It was also found, however, that saltpeter, when melted in


The history of ice cream can be traced back to the Chinese some 3,000 years ago, a time when the emperors were some of the fortunate people who could enjoy such a treat. Of course, the ancient form of ice cream was different from what it is today, but it has evolved over time through different recipes.

Ancient Chinese people collecting ice for storage.
Ancient Chinese people collecting ice for storage.

In the olddays, huge ice blocks, formed in winter, were heavily sought after and stowed away. In particular, the Chinese imperial palace would have these blocks of ice stored in the basement ready for use with the arrival of summer’s heat.

Detail from “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” a scroll describing capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), with convenient transportation, economic prosperity and affluent urban life. Painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145).

It is commonly known that potassium nitrate (saltpeter) has been used as a major ingredient in producing gunpowder since ancient times. It was also found, however, that saltpeter, when melted in water, could absorb such a great amount of heat as to freeze the water. Accordingly, ice had already been produced in China in the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Duyang Zabian, a collection of Tang Dynasty stories by Su E, recorded: “In scorching summer, put a handful of saltpeter into a wok of water and boil it. Put the boiled water in a bottle and have it sealed. Then re-boil the water and hurriedly throw it into a stream. This way, ice is created in the stream, known as ‘ice blocks for a feast.’”

There is a note on “Pearls of Ice” in Xu Yijian Zhi, a supernatural fiction infused with historical sources and miscellaneous notes, written by Yuan Haowen (1190–1257), who was born during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234): “Tao River outside Lintao City was frozen solid in winter months, producing ice lumps that resembled Euryale Ferox (*) seeds, as pure as round-shaped earlobes. Rich families in Tao Town harvested round-shaped ice lumps and stored them in icehouses for summer use. In scorching summer, tea was flavored with honey and cooled with round-shaped ice, which looked like pearls of ice.”

A map of the Mongolian empire during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The geographical span of the empire enabled Westward spread of Chinese culture.
A map of the Mongolian empire during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The geographical span of the empire enabled Westward spread of Chinese culture.

Although the availability of ice year-round existed in the Tang Dynasty, it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960–1279) that iced beverages gained popularity. The blending of exotic ingredients with ice gave rise to a whole new trend in iced drinks. Beverage stores began offering a wide variety of iced drinks, including “honey water with ice pearls” and “”lychee ice cream.” Another popular dessert was ice cheese, made of juice, milk, and ice cubes.

Yang Wanli (1127–1206), one of the “four masters” of Song Dynasty poetry, described vendors selling ice desserts along the streets:






Ice stores in Bianjing (now Kaifeng), the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, sold ice pearls in crystal sugar. Iced sweet-sour plum juice was another flavorful drink at the time. Ice stores in Lin’an (now Hangzhou), the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, sold “iced bean soup” and “iced plum blossom wine.” Some celebrated painters of the Song Dynasty, like Liu Songnian (1174–1224), even painted in their works scenes of cold drinks being sold.

In the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) iced drinks experienced another breakthrough. In the book, Principles of Correct Diet, a monograph on medicated diet, by Hu Sihui, a royal doctor during the time of the Yuan Dynasty, the procedure to make suyou (butter), tihu (the finest cream), and baisuyou (white butter) is described: “Take congealed milk and have it boiled dry to make suyou. Take the best-quality suyou, and have it boiled dry, filtered, and stored in a big jar. The unfrozen part in the center of the jar is called tihu. Put fresh milk in a jar to have it sour with fermentation, and then use a pestle to churn the fermented milk for thousands of times so as to separate the paste from the remaining liquid. The resulting paste is called baisuyou.”

Zhu Yizun (1629–1709), an author and poet during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), recorded cheese-making procedures in his book, The Grand Secrets of Diets: “From milk comes junket; from junket comes crust pastry; from raw crust pastry comes ripe crust pastry; from ripe crust pastry comes tihu. Add a half cup of water and three pinches of flour into a bowl of milk, stew it until it boils, and add icing sugar to it. Then cook it by a quick fire, churning it for a while with a ladle. When it is well-cooked, have it filtered and poured into a bowl, which tastes best with sugar and ground dried mint.”

When Marco Polo, an Italian merchant traveler, came to China, he was heartily welcomed and offered ice cheese by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty.

A portrait of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China..
A portrait of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China..

According to accounts of The Travels of Marco Polo, there indeed existed ice cheese during the Yuan Dynasty. Chen Ji, an imperial preceptor of the Yuan Dynasty, described the royal treat of ice cheese in his poem:

“Snowy ice cheese on a golden plate

Awarded as top honor, at the imperial court.”

In 1295, Kublai Khan revealed the technique of making ice cheese to Marco Polo, who brought it back to Italy. Instead of following the recipe exactly, Marco Polo altered it by adding yak’s milk into the ice cubes, which in turn made the ice cheese creamy. It was this slight change with the addition of milk to ice that became popular.

After being introduced to Italy, the technique of making ice cheese was kept secret until it was sold to France some 300 years later at a very high price. Ice cheese was subsequently introduced to England, where the British helped to develop it into what ice cream is today.

In 1560, due to the Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, ice cream recipes experienced further changes. The Italian chefs she brought with her from Florence, Italy, invented semi-solid ice cream flavored with butter, milk, and spices.

A portrait of Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici, wife of King Henry II of France. She precipitated the reform and spread of ice cream in Europe.

Additionally, floral patterns were carved on the ice cream to make it more decorative. Since then, ice cream, in all sorts of flavors and styles, has become an enjoyable treat worldwide.

* Euryale Ferox is a flowering plant that produces starchy white edible seeds, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.


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