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We all scream for old-time ice cream
2013-07-04
By Yao Minji

In the last couple of weeks as the temperature rose, Shanghai residents have been asking in shops and online for xue nuo mi (血糯米), an old-time milk-flavored ice cream stick covered with xue nuo mi, a kind of sticky rice.

In the early 1990s, xue nuo mi and other Bright brand ice creams (bing ji ling, 冰激凌) produced by Shanghai Yimin Foods, were popular, but many Bright products in the ice cream family have disappeared.

Today it's common to see imported ice cream cups, popsicles and other modern-style domestic treats in convenience stories. Ice cream stores, too, specialize in foreign brands of ice cream, sherbet, gelato and other treats.

Bright company, which still has a factory in Shanghai, dates back to 1913 when it was an American trading company with a factory for egg products. In 1925 it imported American ice cream facilities so that they can produce ice cream in low season of egg products. It was one of the first ice cream factories in China, and the brand was called "Beauty."

After 1949, Yimin Foods was founded and Beauty was scrapped for Bright, which made best-selling products including xue nuo mi and salty-sweet popsicles (yan shui bang bing, 盐水棒冰).

Like many state-owned companies, it went through restructuring around 2003, and many popular products were removed for various reasons, one being that they were not trendy and modern, another that they were just too inexpensive to make and sell and the profit was too low.

When xue nuo mi resurfaced this summer, it drew many inquires in convenience stores, supermarkets and small grocery stores. It is priced at only 1.5 yuan (24 US cents), which means many store owners would rather sell more expensive treats.

Many other simple and inexpensive ice creams, recreating the flavors of 20 years ago, face the same problem and can only be found in cheaper and smaller shops.

"My business got better since I started selling xue nuo mi three weeks ago," owner of a small grocery shop on Guangdong Road near the Bund surnamed Lin tells Shanghai Daily.

"I get a dozen young customers asking about xue nuo mi every day. Once, a young man who works nearby bought 10 to share with his colleagues."

The sticky rice on top of the ice cream creates a unique flavor that balances the richness of milk and freshness of sticky rice. An intriguing texture combines smooth cream and chewy rice.

Many young people, now in their 20s and 30s, love that ice cream because it reminds them of a long-lost flavor and their childhood, when life was much slower in Shanghai.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were only a handful of different ice creams, mainly popsicles of different flavors including sweet-salty water, orange and red bean.

Some were made by the Bright company, while others were made by smaller factories or homemade by street vendors who had no trademarks.

They were not sold in large refrigerators in supermarkets or chain convenience stores, but on the street, in old small freezers covered by thick quilt to keep the temperature low.

"I checked all the convenience stores around my company and my apartment building about a month ago, when I read online that xue nuo mi was coming back," says Phillip Wang, a 32-year-old marketing director.

"I haven't tasted this childhood favorite in 10 years. It was a luxury back then, compared with cheaper popsicles. I still remember begging my mom for a few more cents so that I can get xue nuo mi and show off to friends."

In those days, Chinese urban childhood was pretty much stress-free. Wang says his "biggest concern was only to get a higher grade so I could get more pocket money."

When he was in primary school around 25 years ago, he mostly bought orange popsicles, basically frozen orange-flavored water - they were the cheapest treat and cost only 0.04 yuan then.

In an effort to capitalize on nostalgia, some companies launched similar products in recent years.

"I've found three or four kinds of orange popsicles, but they never taste like the ones from granny's small freezer. Maybe the process of making ice cream changed, or maybe I changed," he says.

Many people are commenting online about the lost flavors of childhood ice cream, some long gone, some still around. They just don't taste the same, but that's because they probably don't measure up to the sweetness of childhood 20 years ago.

The simple salty water popsicle is another classic, a household favorite that many people made at home when they were students. The ingredients are sugar, salt and water. The slightly sweet and salty flavor is appealing and thirst-quenching.

The other two popular popsicles are sweet red bean and green mung bean, both traditional Chinese favorites for sweets.

The combination of mashed beans and hard ice creates an appealing texture.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, both sweet red beans and mung beans are cooling and help remove heat and damp from the body during humid summer.

Sweet red bean soup and mung bean congee are both traditional Chinese treats that cool the body and are said to help prevent heatstroke.

The three-color ice cream cup (san se bei, 三色杯)containing chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors is another favorite that has endured, though many people say the taste is different. It used to be one of the most expensive treats, costing 0.80 yuan.

For those who enjoyed vanilla ice cream and milky taste, the iced cube (bing zhuan, 冰砖) was a must. Many children turned it into an ice cream soda by putting bing zhuan into a glass of cola or other soda.

"I'm glad these old flavors resurfaced, but it really was the good old times that we miss," says Wang.

He says he feels "sad" for his own children, who have so many choices of ice creams, iced yogurt, sherbets, gelatos - in cups, cones, on sticks and in hundreds of flavors - "yet they don't enjoy the same pleasures we had back then."

DIY ice cream just tastes better, fresher

THERE'S nothing like homemade ice cream, especially with freshly picked fruit and favorite ingredients. It always tastes better than store-bought.

As summer descends with its heat and humidity, homemade ice cream recipes, molds and ice cream machines are getting popular - to avoid artificial additives, have fun and be creative.

More than 26,000 sales of ice cream machines have been reported over the past 30 days on Taobao.com. A family-style ice cream machine costs 200 yuan to 500 yuan (US$32-81) and can make all kinds of ice cream with milk, yogurt, fruits, nuts, syrups, choclate chips and many ingredients.

The simple process - electric machinese do all the work, you don't have to use a hand-crank - makes it easy to be creative.

Internet users post photos of their homemade treats, such as melon ice cream made with fresh pieces of melon and served in a scooed-out melon shell.

Molds for making popsicles on sticks are among the best-sellers, especially those that resemble the popsicles made 20 years ago. Using freshly squeezed juices, sugar and water, it's easy to make flavors not found on the market. Or, they can be made with ice cream. The process of making ice cream and popsicles reminds many people of their childhood, when ice cream was a luxury, a special treat, and varieties were limited.

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