For me and other today’s twenty-somethings, it’s not Kem Trang Tien that thaws youthful memories, but kem ky. Words by me. Photos by Francis Roux. This article was published on Word Hanoi September 2012.
Many Hanoians born around the 1980s and early 1990s share a love for kem ky, a type of ice-cream they associate with being children and teenagers. Imported from Ho Chi Minh City, kem ky was widely distributed in the capital around the turn of the millennium. Usually served on a plate filled with colourful ice-cream slices, each a different fruit flavour, the ice-cream sellers would measure the weight of all the portions and then calculate the payment. This explains why it is called kem ky, ice-cream sold by the kilo.
To many Hanoians, the Neopolitan-like kem ky paints a picture of their childhood. It’s not just the taste and the look, but the associations. This rainbow-coloured ice-cream was the reward for doing something good or getting high grades at school. Now only a decade later, it is impossible to find.
One option for those craving some taste-bud induced memory triggers is to go for kem can. Served at the Ice-Cream and Yoghurt Shop (29 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung) and similar in both looks and name, kem can comes in a range of 10 different colours and fruit flavours. It’s also sold by weight, on how heavy each of the scoops are.
“I was thinking of a name for the ice-cream when we first started selling it,” says Tuan, the shop’s owner. “My mother told me to measure its weight and use this method to charge diners. Suddenly I realized we could simply call the ice-cream kem can. It was easy and made so much sense.”
According to Tuan, since both names indicate ice-cream sold by the kilo, people often mistake his ice-cream for kem ky Sai Gon, which he says is no longer produced in Hanoi. Some diners even tell him that the taste is the same. He disagrees.
“Our ice-cream is not an imitation,” he explains. “While kem ky has a high proportion of flour, kem can is made from a formula created by my mother. She worked for 35 years as a technician for Trang Tien ice-cream company. The blend of flavours she uses is very Vietnamese — condensed milk, sugar and free-range eggs. Maybe it is the use of these ingredients that reminds people of kem ky.”
At Tuan’s ice-cream parlour, among the 10 kem can flavours available, jackfruit and durian are the two favourites.
“20 years ago, my mother participated in an ice-cream competition in Hanoi,” he recalls. “She invented fresh jackfruit ice-cream by slicing jackfruit pieces and then putting them into the ice-cream. We decided to make our ice-cream in the same way, using fresh fruit rather than just flavouring.”
I sit with Tuan in a small corner of his shop, eating ice-cream, transfixed on the bustling street life outside as the whole world seems to pass by. Suddenly Tuan starts, as if waking from a dream.
He says: “I wonder if in 20 years, the kids of today will remember kem can as a part of their childhood in the same way that I remember kem ky?”
Kem can is priced at VND50,000 per kilo. Tuan’s shop at 29 Lo Duc also sells yoghurt, caramel and siro ice-cream. Prices are from VND5,000 to VND10,000. The shop is open from 8am to 11pm.