A cone of ice & fire

The Berke­ley ice cream shop that blends cul­tures and spices to pro­duce Thai gelato.

San Francisco Chronicle - - FOOL + HOME - By Leena Trivedi-Gre­nier

Funn Fisher likes to ex­per­i­ment.

When I showed up at her shop, Se­cret Scoop Thai Gelato in Berke­ley, she was test­ing new sor­bet recipes. There was a black­berry with Singha, the Thai beer whose fla­vor re­minded her of an ice cream shop in Bangkok that served al­co­hol-fla­vored ice cream. Then there was mango with Tajin, the Mex­i­can chile-lime salt.

“In Thai­land, I would dip fresh tamarind, green or ripe man­goes in chile, sugar and salt,” Fisher says. “Tajin re­minds me of that fla­vor.”

No one goes to Se­cret Scoop for a tra­di­tional ice cream ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s be­cause Fisher cre­ates fla­vors based on her child­hood in Bangkok. In­stead of choco­late, pistachio and salted caramel in her ice cream case, you’ll find choco­late-lemon­grass gelato, sour­sop-gin­ger sor­bet and salted tamarind sor­bet. There are cones, but also fra­grant pan­dan waf­fle bowls, an in­ven­tion of Fisher’s, and the more tra­di­tional Thai ice cream ac­com­pa­ni­ment of sticky rice, served un­der­neath a scoop of gelato or sor­bet. Hers is fla­vored with sweet co­conut milk and pan­dan leaves that tint it a bright green.

“When I was a kid, an ice cream tuk tuk (a tiny three­wheel rick­shaw) would sell choco­late, straw­berry and co­conut ice cream, served in­side of a bread bun with sticky rice and top­pings like peanuts,” she says, re­fer­ring to khanom pang ai tiim, a Thai ice tra­di­tion that is ba­si­cally a sun­dae served in a bun, a lit­eral ice cream sand­wich.

Fisher prefers to sweeten her gelatos and sor­bets with brown sugar in­stead of corn syrup, us­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble to keep it light. She even pas­teur­izes her own gelato base to con­trol the sugar. That’s be­cause she hates how her body feels af­ter eat­ing su­per sweet gelato or ice cream. “Cus­tomers should leave feel­ing happy,” she says, not weighed down with sugar. Since she low­ers the sugar con­tent, she keeps her sor­bets scoopable by adding a mix­ture of dex­trose and guar gum.

To test new mango sor­bet recipes, Fisher made one with Tajin, one with chamoy (a sour, salty and sweet chile pow­der) and one plain, so we could taste the Tajin and chamoy in the sor­bet and as a top­ping. Straight out of the ice cream ma­chine, the mango was so creamy, I thought it had dairy (it didn’t). The best, she de­cided, was with Tajin in the sor­bet, whose salt and sub­tle heat ac­cen­tu­ate the mango’s fruity fla­vor.

It’s pos­si­ble that her ex­per­i­men­tal style comes from her back­ground, which is far from the world of food.

Fisher worked as an ar­chi­tect and pro­fes­sor in Bangkok and Sin­ga­pore be­fore head­ing to UC Berke­ley in 2008 for a de­gree in ur­ban de­sign. But job

hunt­ing dur­ing the re­ces­sion was dif­fi­cult, so she started get­ting into web­site de­sign.

Af­ter spend­ing eight hours a day send­ing out re­sumes, she would need a break. So one day she tweaked some on­line recipes for gelato, adding Thai fla­vors and churn­ing it in her tiny Cuisi­nart Ice Cream maker. Af­ter en­cour­age­ment from friends, Fisher joined col­lec­tive re­tailer Cort­land Mar­ket­place in 2010, and later San Francisco kitchen in­cu­ba­tor La Cocina, which brought her to fes­ti­vals. When she fi­nally took the jump to a brick-and-mor­tar lo­ca­tion in March of this year, it was com­pletely self-funded, and she still does free­lance Web de­sign to sup­port the shop.

Find­ing af­ford­able Thai in­gre­di­ents lo­cally has been a strug­gle. She sources fruit like tamarind, sour­sop and pas­sion fruit frozen from a restau­rant sup­ply store. Frozen pan­dan and ex­tract come from 99 Ranch in Richmond and Roong Zing Zing, a Thai gro­cery in El Cer­rito. Be­cause Se­cret Scoop is such a small op­er­a­tion, Fisher also out­sources her sticky rice to a lo­cal Thai restau­rant, Sa-Wooei, us­ing a recipe on which she and the chef col­lab­o­rated.

There are also oc­ca­sional lan­guage bar­ri­ers, such as ne­go­ti­at­ing things like in­sur­ance for the shop. “My hus­band (an Amer­i­can) has no prob­lem get­ting in­sur­ance, but with my voice, it’s harder,” she says.

Then there is the fact that she is an Asian mak­ing a tra­di­tion­ally Western dessert. “Some peo­ple think I’m try­ing to change it, that it’s not sweet or creamy enough,” she says. Once, an Ital­ian man came in just to tell her that Thai gelato isn’t as good as Ital­ian. In Thai­land, western ice cream and Ital­ian gelato are in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar, in ad­di­tion to Thai tra­di­tions like fried ice cream rolls, khanom pang ai tiim and sticky rice.

But it’s been a slow process introducin­g Thai ice cream fla­vors and tra­di­tions to Amer­i­can cus­tomers. She ended up re­mov­ing bread from the menu be­cause cus­tomers said the bun made it heavy, but peo­ple are slowly be­com­ing in­ter­ested in the sticky rice. She also sells a va­ri­ety of Thai top­pings, in­clud­ing roasted co­conut, jack­fruit and ly­chee-co­conut gel. Want­ing to re-cre­ate her ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing fresh tamarind in Thai­land, she re­cently in­tro­duced her own ver­sion of Mex­i­can chamoy pow­der as a top­ping for her salted tamarind sor­bet. The feed­back has been pos­i­tive, with some cus­tomers en­joy­ing it on other fla­vors, like her roasted co­conut gelato.

It typ­i­cally takes Fisher four to five months to per­fect a new gelato or sor­bet recipe. But by the end of our cook­ing ses­sion, she was con­fi­dent the mango with Tajin is ready to sell. “I have to be care­ful and have Amer­i­cans taste it,” she says. “Thai peo­ple won’t no­tice the chile, but Amer­i­cans might find it spicy.”

Pho­tos by Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

Funn Fisher, above left, with Thai gelato topped with green pan­dan sticky rice at her Berke­ley shop, Se­cret Scoop. Above: Chile mix­tures and toasted co­conut can be sprin­kled on as well.

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