It’s hard to imagine a world without ice cream, especially now with new ice cream innovations popping up around the world every year! This fabulously versatile dessert had to come from somewhere, so we made it our mission to answer that age old question – what the heck was the world’s first ice cream?
If your first guess was that it had to be sometime around the invention of the electric freezer, you’d be sort of right. The arrival of commercially available refrigeration kickstarted an explosion of frozen inventions, which led us to the ice cream we all love today! However, the origins of ice cream as a type of frozen dessert goes further back than you’d expect.
We’d need to acknowledge, first, that there’s really no definite answer to this question. There’s still a lot of debate about the world’s first ice cream dessert, and we only know as much as the historical accounts we’ve been able to discover. Civilisation is built from uncountable cultures, each with rich culinary traditions that evolved over tens of thousands of years, and many of them shared a love of ice cream just like us!
The oldest mentions of frozen treats are fragmentary records that stretch back about 3000 years (we know, it’s crazy!). In some Middle Eastern sources, King Solomon was described as having a penchant for frozen fruit purees, and the Old Testament mentions frozen goat milk as a treat that Abraham enjoyed. In ancient Mesopotamia, snow was mixed with mashed fruits for royal snacks, and ancient Egyptians served crushed ice from the Lebanese mountains with fruit juices.
Of all the famous historical figures who loved ice cream, you might be surprised at which one may have given us one of the oldest recorded ice cream recipes; Alexander the Great! Known for his military brilliance that helped him conquer his way from Greece to India in the 300s BCE, accounts of his life described his love for mounds of packed snow and ice flavoured with honey and nectar.
A more likely candidate, however, for the birthplace of ice cream is ancient Persia, in modern-day Iran. By 400 BCE, the Persians had developed sophisticated refrigeration techniques with innovations like the yakhchāl, which were large underground chambers insulated against the desert heat. Being able to effectively store ice from the mountains meant that iced desserts flourished across the region, usually made from mixtures of ice, honey, masticated fruits, spices like saffron and delicacies like faludeh (slender strings of rice noodle). Modern iterations are still sold at bastani (traditional Persian ice cream shops) in Iran today, which could also mean that it could very well be one of the oldest surviving ice cream treats in the world!
The following centuries saw a flurry of frozen desserts crop up around the world; spreading from the Mongol Empire into China, India and subsequently Europe. Today, we can enjoy an ever changing landscape of ice cream that keeps our taste buds tickled; so the next time you take a lick of your favourite scoop, take a moment to appreciate all the ice cream pioneers that have come before us!