Soft serve ice cream is big in Japan. Walk the streets of any major city (or countryside town for that matter) and you’re bound to find the telltale swirl beckoning you towards a refreshing treat. Many shops specializing in soft serve, otherwise known assoft cream, will proudly advertise that they source their milk from cows in Hokkaidō, Japan's nethermost main island, and in fact, one very popular flavor is simply Hokkaidō milk cream.
The flavors go well beyond vanilla, chocolate, andmatcha,however. Some soft serve shops have extensive menus with flavors that range from the enticing to the interesting to the downright bizarre.
Here are 11 of those unique flavors you might want to give a try:
Soy Sauce (Shoyu)
While soy sauce may first appear to be an odd and maybe stomach-churning choice for a soft serve flavor, the deep salty, umami rich ingredient tends to add a salted caramel-like flavor when mixed with the sweet ice cream.
Purple Sweet Potato (Beni-Imo)
Beni-imo, or purple sweet potato, is a common flavor in many Japanese sweets and snacks, even boasting its own KitKat. It has a subtle sweetness that compliments the rich creaminess of the soft serve, not to mention its incredible purple color.
Goma, or sesame, is a popular soft serve flavor throughout Japan as its earthy nuttiness tends to suit the Japanese palette, which is less inclined towards overly sweet desserts. In recent years black sesame has been increasing in popularity both as a flavor for soft serve and in various sweets, recognizable by its gray-black color.
Roasted Green Tea (Hojicha)
Matchaisn’t the only tea-flavored soft serve popular in Japan. Hojicha, roasted green tea, has risen along with the boom of soft serve shops. It has the same earthy notes as amatchaice cream, but has an added toasted smokiness that comes from the roasting of the tea.
While you might associatewasabi with sushi and sashimi,wasabiis one of the most popular soft serve flavors unique to Japan. It has none of the intense pungent, sinus-cleansing punch of thewasabi we’re more familiar with. Rather the gentle, peppery spiciness complements the sweetness, adding a little bit of an unexpected tartness to it as well.
Described by some as a mix between butterscotch, salted caramel, and peanut butter,misoflavored soft serve is not only popular, but also delicious. The saltiness perfectly matches the sweetness of the cream for a treat worth trying.
Sweet Red Bean (Anko/Azuki)
Enjoyed as a part of traditional desserts for hundreds of years,anko, or sweetened red bean paste, is another subtly sweet, almost nutty flavor that perfectly exemplifies the Japanese approach to sweets. You may also find it under the nameazuki soft serve, asazuki are the red beans from whichanko is made.
Created by a family-ownedsoba shop in Kanazawa,sobasoft serve makes for a uniquely savory, nutty, sweet flavor that people travel just to taste. Additionally,sobasoft serve can also refer to buckwheat tea flavored ice cream with its unique cereal-like taste.
One of the more adventurous flavors, seaweed soft serve can be made fromkombu, nori,orwakame and generally asserts its oceanic origins with briny notes that add a hint ofumami to the sweetness.
Whitebait Fish (Shirasu)
One of the more unique (and challenging) flavors of soft serve isshirasu. Made from young whitebait fish known asshirasu, the soft serve is exclusive to Enoshima in Kanagawa where it is a local delicacy, one you have to try and see for yourself.
Squid Ink (Ikasumi)
Another fish-flavored soft serve is ikasumi, or squid ink. What started out as a seaside novelty, has now become popular among those daring to try it. It has a slightly fishy taste and a striking black color.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!