Was ice cream invented in China: Myth or Fact?

While researching topics about China, I kept running into claims that ice cream was invented in China, and Marco Polo brought the recipe back to Italy.

To discover the facts, I did some virtual sleuthing and discovered that immigrants arriving in Ellis Island were treated to a bowl of ice cream upon arrival.

I wonder if the Chinese arriving at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay got to eat ice cream. Considering the way the Chinese were treated then—probably not.

Ice Cream History and Folklore says, “Most books are full of myths about the history of ice cream. According to popular accounts, Marco Polo (1254-1324) saw ice cream being made during his trip to China, and on his return introduced it to Italy.”

In fact, “During China’s Tang Dynasty  (618-907 A.D.) something vaguely on the order of ice cream was made from cow, goat and buffalo milk, flavored with camphor and thickened with flour.” (The History of Ice Cream)

More details came from Wonderquest: “The first concoction resembling ice cream was made in China during the Tang period…. Ice-cream makers … heated buffalo, cow, and goat milk together then fermented the brew to form yogurt. They thickened the yogurt with flour and flavored it with camphor (an insect repellant, of all things). Refrigerating first, they served the confection to the king.”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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6 Responses to Was ice cream invented in China: Myth or Fact?

  1. Alejandro says:

    I bet it was an accident. I read your post about how gun powder was invented in China and that was an accident too.

  2. gwen says:

    That was enjoyable to read, thanks for posting it.

  3. Interesting … but I think it doesn’t count as ice cream until they ice enters the recipe. Otherwise, it’s creamy yoghurt or something like that. Just saying.

    • I thought the same thing because there weren’t enough details. But China has a lot of mountains—some of the highest in the word—and maybe they did freeze the yogurt like concoction. Kings and emperors have been known to have ice delivered long distances packed in straw and stored under ground. So it’s possible. In Beijing, for instance, it often reaches freezing temperatures in the winter. The first time I was there we visited the Forbidden City and it was five below. The only benefit to that cold was there weren’t many people visiting the FC that day so we covered a lot of ground fast while shivering.

      It is possible that one winter a few centuries ago, that yogurt concoction froze and someone tasted it and then ice cream was born. They don’t have force air heat in the FC.

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