Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dispatches from the Frontline #3: the Shanghai World Expo

Breaking news from Mona, LME's Asia-Pacific correspondent:

A Modern Day Ice Cream Superhero: Dondurman to the Rescue!

In case you haven't heard, this summer Shanghai has been hosting the highly-anticipated and much-hyped 2010 World Expo.  The modern equivalent of the Paris World's Fair that functions more like an international public relations orgy, this year's "Better Cities, Better Life"-themed Expo has taken over a nearly 1,000-acre swath of the metropolitan area and created a temporary city within a city. Here, hundreds of countries, corporations and industries have gathered for the summer put their best face forward and impress the tens of millions of tourists flocking to Shanghai to see the Expo. Visitors willingly wait in lines for hours and hours and hours in order to access each of the Expo's hundreds of pavilions, hoping to experience something exotic. In other words, move over EPCOT.

Waiting for a chance to visit the Morocco pavilion
Dondurma: Turkey's past, Mona's future
Personally, my own visit to the Expo meant a fantastic chance to score a sampling of delicious food from around the world. And more than anything, the potential to seek out a really satisfying ice cream experience in China.

A little backstory on this point. Historically, ice cream in its finest form has not been a part of local food culture in China. As of recently, most major Chinese cities can boast the presence of at least one massive outlet of Haagen Daaz and a reasonable selection of gelato vendors to cater to the tastes of foreign tourists and ex-pats. Inevitably, however, any hardcore ice cream lover will eventually find these options hackneyed, limiting, overpriced and boring. That said, as an LME correspondent, my mission while living here in China and traveling throughout the region are encounters with ice cream that might just challenge the otherwise prevalent and dismissive myth that this part of the world is some kind of lactose intolerant backwater that dairy addicts like myself should fear.
And that brings me back to Shanghai, my hungry outing to the World Expo and a face-to-face encounter with a real life ice cream superhero.

As Anna has already explained, dondurma is the word for the special elastic variety of Turkish ice cream that gets its special stretchy quality from salep,  a substance derived from wild orchid root.  I grew up in an Iraqi-Lebanese family and thanks to the linguistic influence of the Ottoman Empire, dondurma happens to be the same word I have used to beg my mom for ice cream since childhood. Unsurprisingly, when I saw a booth selling gooey milk-flavored ice cream in the Expo's Turkish pavilion, my heart leapt with nostalgic delight!

milk flavor

It was an unbearably hot day in Shanghai, and to my pleasure the vendor (very-cleverly named Dondurman) provided a deeply satisfying helping of creamy, stretchy, fresh and milky ice cream.

Thank you, Dondurman
Our hero
Dondurma magic

Not only that, but the animated Turkish gentleman who served us took out all the stops and put on a full-blown, corn-ball performance: wielding a traditionally long-handled paddle to stretch out and pile ice cream high on the cone while serenading my friend, twirling the cone over and around our heads, and posing coyly for my camera.

All said and done, it was well worth the 25RMB ($3.50) for a cone.

My natural assumption was that Dondurman was probably a Turkish company that had dropped into town for solely the occasion of the Expo. But something told me to hold onto some hope that my encounter with Dondurman in East Asia would not just be an isolated incident. I was fascinated to learn after some web-hunting that the company is actually based in Tokyo. That's right, a Japanese company entirely dedicated to providing a Middle Eastern specialty ice cream throughout the region! And it simply wouldn't be Japanese if the company didn't have an adorable mascot and catchy jingle to boot.

FYI Dondurman caters to large orders and corporate sized events throughout the region, with a selection of six seriously lickable flavors: Milk, Strawberry, Mango, Chai, Fig & Rum, and Cherry. If you're interested, you can place your dry-ice-packed order via their fancy website:

This is Mona, reporting for Lick Me Everywhere from the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China.


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