Yee Kwan - Ice cream made in Sheffield with a Chinese twist
PUBLISHED: 09:59 15 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:23 20 February 2013
Black sesame seed ice cream? Jo Haywood talks Chinese flavours with a Sheffield ice cream maker Photographs by Andy Bulmer
It all started with a knickerbocker glory at Atkinsons department store in Sheffield. Yee Kwan was just five years old when she dipped her extra-long spoon into the deep glass of ice cream, fruit and cream, but the memory has not just stuck with her over the years, it has inspired her to launch her own business.
After eight years as a chartered surveyor which, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to ignite her imagination, she has launched her own brand of ice cream and sorbet. So far, so sweet, you might think. But these are not your common or garden frozen treats; these are Asian-inspired delights, with vanilla and raspberry ripple making way for black sesame seed and lychee.
My parents owned a takeaway, so I was always involved in preparing food, said Yee, whose unflashy, functional workshop is on Sheffields Devonshire business park. But no one really goes to a Chinese restaurant or takeaway for the puddings, which struck me as something of a shame.
Ive always loved ice cream and could see there was a definite gap in the market for Asian-inspired desserts. So I went on training courses, learned how to use the equipment and bought myself a little ice cream maker. Then I started playing around with flavours, taking inspiration from my roots.
She now makes about 400 litres of ice cream and sorbet a week from a menu of 50 flavours, including black sesame seed (her favourite), lime and lemongrass (her second favourite), green tea, guava, cardamom and lychee.
Assisted by her husband, Antony, and an intern taken on to help as she prepares for the birth of her second child this summer, Yee keeps things very simple. Equipment is kept to a bare minimum just a batch pasteuriser, batch freezer and freezers for storage; milk and cream is delivered twice a week from a local farm; and additional flavours and ingredients are picked up at a Chinese supermarket in Bramall Lane.
No artificial preservatives, stabilisers or flavours make it into the mix, and everything is carefully blended by hand, giving Yee full control over quality and taste. Her ice cream is generally made to order, so there arent vast stockpiles of it frosting up the freezer, with most batches made fresh and delivered to customers within seven days.
From the start I wanted my ice cream and sorbet to have a crafted feel, said Yee. But that doesnt mean Im solely interested in being an exclusive brand that only a handful of people get to try.
I want lots of people to be able to experience my flavours. Id love to get into the major supermarkets.
Her burgeoning empire began on her own doorstep, as local Chinese restaurant owners queued up for her early prototype products. But now her reputation as an artisan ice cream maker with a wild range of flavours precedes her and her pots fill the cold cabinets at Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, Leeds and Manchester; Weetons in Harrogate; Showroom Cinema in Sheffield; Tai Sun Oriental supermarkets; and numerous restaurants.
Were not a huge concern, but were growing steadily, said Yee, as she briskly whipped up a batch of chocolate chilli ice cream. I suppose Im a bit of a control freak. I hand-finish each pot and like to be involved in every part of the process, even the design of the packaging, which I wanted to be fresh and modern but with an overriding Chinese tone.
But when it comes to flavours I do have to think of the customers. I started out by concentrating on what I like lychees, black sesame seeds and lemongrass. Now, Ive learned to develop flavours for other people. Its often about getting the balance right and not overpowering non-Chinese taste buds. Chocolate with lots of chilli can be too much, but chocolate with the right hit of chilli can be a real crowd-pleaser.
She believes people are becoming more adventurous, happily swapping vanilla for black pepper and strawberry for green tea. But can children be convinced to swap their banana split for something with a dash of Asian spice?
My ice cream is not just for adults, said Yee. Children like to experiment too. Although its probably best not to throw them straight in at the deep end with wasabi. Mango and passionfruit is a much better starting point.
So does she regret giving up the rollercoaster rise that is chartered surveying for a life in ice cream? Not for a second. But that doesnt mean shes completely regret-free.
Sweet potato ice cream, said Yee with a shudder. Ill not be making that mistake again.