Those original frozen confections were probably little more than snow with something sweet on top or mixed into it. A far cry from the variety we have now. Ice cream itself is basically frozen custard made from dairy, sugar, and usually eggs, and it contains at least 8 percent milk fat. Gelato is similar, but it is denser and contains more egg yolks and more fat.
Sorbets and granitas contain no dairy. They're made from a simple syrup flavored usually with fruit and/or a few spices and herbs. Sorbet is creamy because it's churned, while granita is scraped so it's icy and slushy. Sherbet is a cross between ice cream and sorbet.
A trip to Ben & Jerry's, Baskin-Robbins, or even the supermarket can confound you with the plethora of flavor choices. But even though you can pick Chunky Monkey or Dulce de Leche, the most popular ice cream flavors are pretty much old standbys. The top five are: Vanilla, Chocolate, Butter Pecan, Strawberry and Neapolitan.
Wonder why that vanilla/chocolate/strawberry combo is called Neapolitan? Spumoni is an authentic Neapolitan ice cream creation featuring three flavors — usually chocolate, cherry and pistachio. It was introduced in the US around 1890, but apparently Americans weren't ready for those "exotic" flavors so an ingenious marketer combined the more readily acceptable flavors and labeled the ice cream after the region in Italy where the original was created.
Our tastebuds have gotten a bit more adventurous since then — garlic ice cream was on the menu at the Garlic Café in Las Vegas — but we may not be as advanced as the Japanese. In Japan there is a cottage industry making ice cream flavors of exotic regional specialties. Thinking about plums or ginger? Think again. Mr. Yoshiaki Sato runs a small confectionary shop in Ishinomaki, a small fishing city in northern Japan. To maximize the use of local hauls from fishing boats, he first developed fish ice cream. Then he went on to use sea slugs, whale meat, soft-shelled turtles, and cedar chips (love that crunchy texture — and so aromatic!). Other Japanese ice cream entrepreneurs have introduced pickled orchid ice cream, chicken wing and shrimp ice creams, and ice creams made from eels and clams. Octopus, salmon roe and shark fin have also been used. Mr. Sato has developed intricate methods to neutralize the fishy smell of these ice creams. He steeps the seafood in milk, brown tea, miso, or alcohol to expunge the pungent odor. For saury, a skinny beak-nosed fish that seems to be the stinkiest, he devised a seven-step process that uses whisky, brandy and five other kinds of alcohol. Then he adds walnuts, almonds, peanuts and chocolate to "Westernize" the flavor.
It's a good thing Marco Polo's journeys led him to China rather than Japan. If he'd visited that country, we might be eating Mahi Road instead of Rocky Road ice cream these days.