James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

There’s More Than One Way to Eat an Egg

There’s More Than One Way to Eat an Egg

Ice Cream in Thailand

It was meltingly hot outside in Songkhla, a coastal town in Thailand’s deep south. I was in town shooting a set of short documentaries. Seeing a garage-sized ice cream shop, I stopped in for a lick and some shade.

The old woman selling ice cream put three scoops into a glass bowl and then picked up an egg. With a quick shake of her wrist, she cracked the shell and poured raw egg over the top of my ice cream. “Only the yolk,” the wrinkled woman said. “Egg whites are gooey.”

The yolk’s intense yellow color surprised me. It ran down and around the curved ice only to solidify into smooth clumps in the bottom of the dish. I spooned up a bite. The muted, almost salty egg yolk evened out the cream’s sweetness a bit. The gel-like, yellow globs gave my teeth something to nibble into. I considered my risk of contracting salmonella and swallowed.

Over the next few months, Mrs. Somboon Pongpisitant and I became friends. She told me that her father, Mr. Yew, started the store in 1933, three years before she was born. “My pa came from China,” she explained, while gesturing to his portrait on the pink-painted wall. “On the way he stopped in Singapore. There he met some good Chinese people. They taught him how to make ice cream.”

When Mr. Yew passed though Singapore in the 1920s, the first industrial ice machines in all of Southeast Asia had just been built there, in British Malaysia. Fishermen bought ice to keep their catch fresh so they could then export their fish around the Malay Peninsula and beyond.

After discovering ice cream in Singapore, Mr. Yew moved to Thailand, but Songkhla didn’t yet have an ice factory. In a clever move, he bought the leftover, melting ice from fishermen who’d come from Malaysia to sell their fish. Mr. Yew then packed the ice into his hand-cranked ice cream maker and made Songkhla’s first scoop of vanilla (and quite possibly, the first ice cream in all of Thailand). Why he poured raw egg yolk on top remains a mystery, but his daughter Pongpisitant (and now his grandchildren) have kept the old ways alive until today. (They do, however, now buy ice from a local factory.)

Now, whenever I return to Songkhla and eat egg-yolk ice cream, I like to imagine going back in time to 1933, when Mr. Yew had just arrived: Cars in town are a rarity. People text by writing words on a piece of paper. Rice is a comfort food. And suddenly a lanky young man hauls fishy ice back to his wooden shack, reemerging with a ball of white sticky stuff. Only after he cracks an egg and pours yolk on top are you willing to try it. It’s so cold, it makes your brain freeze. What an odd way to eat an egg.

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