In its journey zigzagging between tradition and geography, ice cream has grown from a dessert for the powerful elite to a street food that everybody enjoys and consumes all year round. Back in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, ice-and snow-drinks were served to the rich and wealthy, and what we can loosely call the first ice cream cup was found in Egypt in a tomb from the Second Dynasty in 2700 BC. The “first ice cream cup” was a kind of mold consisting of two silver cups, one of which contained snow (or crushed ice) and the other cooked fruit. “Icehouses”, where snow was stored and ice deliberately formed, were undoubtedly an extremely ancient invention which led to our modern-day refrigerator. A tablet from c. 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari, in the northern Mesopotamian town of Terqa. In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the 7th century BC, and references suggest that these were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great, who loved snow and ice with honey and nectar, stored snow in pits dug for that purpose around 300 BC. In Rome, in the 3rd century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops. The ice that formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top. Persian records date back to the 2nd century AD for sweetened chilled drinks with ice created by freezing water in the desert at night.
Snow was used to cool beverages in Greece around 500 BC, and Hippocrates is known to have blamed chilled beverages for causing “stomach flow” as Snow obtained from the lower slopes of the mountains was unsanitary, and iced drinks were suspected to induce convulsions, colic, and a host of other diseases. Later, the Romans seemed to take note of Hippocrates’ complaint and did not add ice to their beverages because the easily accessible ice on the lower slopes was not sanitary for use in food preparation. However, in the same century, the people of the Persian Empire did the opposite. Instead of putting ice in their drinks, they would spill grape juice concentrate over the snow and eat it in hot summers. A hundred years later, they invented a special ice cream recipe for their royal families which consisted of iced rose water, vermicelli, saffron, berries and other sweet flavours.
In Ancient Rome special wells were used to store ice and snow which slaves brought down from to mountains to luxurious villas. During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (54-86 AD) often sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruit and honey toppings.. Among the ruins of Pompeii there are traces which lead us to believe that some shops specialized in selling crushed ice from Vesuvius sweetened with honey.
Gathering ice to preserve food was a practice in Japan where Emperor Nintoku (290 – 399 AD) proclaimed an Ice Day and in China, over a thousand years ago. In the Shih Ching, an ancient collection of odes, mention is made of an ice-gathering festival. King Tang of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1675 – 1646 BC), had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor. During the Tang Dynasty an elegant drink was recorded which consisted of goat, cow of buffalo milk cooked with flour and camphor and then placed in iron containers and buried in snow or ice. The Arabs prepared cold drinks with cherries, quinces and pomegranates.
The first “ice cream” on the American continent was the Paila, a tradition in Pre-Columbian Ecuador. The Caranquis (or Caras), before being conquered by the Incas, sent expeditions to bring blocks of ice and snow down from the top of the volcano Imbabura, wrapped in thick layers of straw and frailejòn leaves, for thermal insulation. The ice cream was then made by filling a large cauldron (called a “paila”) with ice, snow and fruit juice (and sometimes milk), and mixing vigorously until the juices and ice froze together. Using this ancestral technique, gradually perfected over centuries, helados de paila are still prepared traditionally today in some places in Ecuador, especially in the modern town of Imbabura.
Ice cream was made possible only by the discovery of the endothermic effect. Previously, the cream could only be chilled so it could not be frozen. The addition of salt reduced the melting point of the ice, which had the effect of removing heat from the cream and allowing it to freeze. The first documented record of this was the Indian poem Pancatantra, dating back to the 4th century AD. The early written description of the method is documented not from culinary sources, but from the writings of Ibn Abu Usaybia concerning medicine in the 13th century. The technique of “freezing” is not known from any European source prior to the 16th century.