Tahitian Vanilla and Coconut Icecream (with White Fungus…shhhh) and Hibiscus Syrup
You may have remembered from this post that we spent some time with my dad and his wife Lilli while on their honeymoon in Tahiti. It wasn’t at all the kind of travel we are accustomed to but we had the most wonderful time. We spent entire days in the water…swimming into the deep blue while riding on the fins of four meter sharks (really) and flying on the wings of sting rays (almost). We played delicately for hours in coral gardens…often surfacing only to feast on delicious tropical fruits. Living in Northern New South Wales means we are already spoilt as far as tropical fruits go…but seriously, the fruits of Tahiti are heavenly. Bhumi became amazingly confident in the water and she too joined us to swim with all the sharks, rays and beautiful tropical fish. ‘Fishes’ became her new favourite word and the gentle rocking of the waves her new favourite place to fall asleep.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my best friend’s family. She was one of three girls…the parents of whom were marine biologists and almost always in the ocean, so quite naturally we all learnt to free-dive. My childhood was spent swimming with huge rays and sharks and I was so happy to see Bhumi becoming just as comfortable in the ocean amongst these most beautiful and graceful animals. I’ll never forget the feeling of when I first dove into the perfectly warm, crystal clear, turquoise waters of Tahiti. Like so many times in my life I was again reminded of the intricate and breathtaking beauty of the sea and the life it holds. Like entering into another world, quiet and peaceful, full of variety, colour and discovery. From within softly waving sea-anenomes, brilliantly striped and coloured fish poked up their little heads looking at me, before duck-diving to safety within their spongy homes, nestling amongst their young.
There was one very memorable moment when I made deep eye contact with a huge lemon shark as it swam just beneath my feet. There was an instant unspoken understanding between us. I knew I was somewhat an outsider within her home…with just a glance I could feel her innate power and strength…originating from the life that was within this amazing creature, non-different from the life within me but simply within a different body. She swam around me a number of times, seemingly just as curious of my energy as I was of hers. I hooked my fingers around her fin and then my arms around her body, and she effortlessly carried me deep to the ocean floor.
There were many other amazing moments, too many to write. I can almost still feel the wings of sting-rays moving across my skin as I swam, softer than the softest silk. In all of its life and beauty, it frightens me to think that the ocean, especially these delicate reef systems, are under so much threat. The populations of sharks and other marine life (although still greatly affected by human impact) are still relatively rich in Tahiti compared to many other parts of the world, especially those affected by commercial fishing and shark finning. Seeing the majesty and biodiversity of this more protected area served to increase my conviction to avoid all fish products and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
We also made friends with a local Tiarre (a most deliciously secented flower similar to a gardenia) farmer who gave us mangos and these beautiful shells…
Tahiti is also famous for its vanilla (see image to the right below). We brought hundreds of vanilla beans home with us and I’m now carefully rationing them into cakes and smoothies. I feel a little giddy every time I hold one. They are unlike any other vanilla I have ever seen…glossy, soft and plump, more like a date than your average vanilla bean and so exquisitely fragrant. I have to call on every ounce of constraint I possess to avoid simply biting into it and sucking out the beans within.
Since returning home, as with all of our travels, I find myself returning to places again and again simply by entering my kitchen and exploring a newly inspired recipe. One such recipe I would like to share with you today. It’s a mildly sweet and fragrant vanilla, coconut ice cream with a slightly tangy hibiscus sauce, the flavours of which seem to work so harmoniously together, especially when served with some fresh mango slithers and lychees. There is a slightly sneaky fungus in this Tahitian-inspired ice-cream recipe, white fungus in fact (pictured above, right). But don’t be afraid, its not at all the kind that grows under the crouch or behind the toenails. Frilly and floral like in appearance and quite suitably similar in shape and colour to coral, white fungus (also known as silver ear or white wood ear) can be used in all varieties of dishes including cakes, salads, soups, stir fries and in this case, ice cream.
White fungus has been used for centuries in China as a medicine to treat all varieties of lung diseases and deficiencies. When the function of the lungs (one of the bodies first defence systems) is strong so is the immune system and function of the bowel. White fungus also contains similar levels of collagen as birds nest…making it a wonderful (and cheap) vegan alternative to keeping the skin rejuvenated and youthful. In China, it is strongly believed that regular intake of white fungus can actually help reverse the visible signs of aging on the skin. So now we can do away with all the carcinogenic, expensive, animal tested, anti-aging creams and lotions that may be cluttering the bathroom cabinet…and just eat ice-cream!
The white fungus that I used in this recipe was given too me from my dad’s lovely wife Lilli. Lilli is Chinese in origin and she brings back the most amazing ingredients each time she returns from a visit home (you can also find it in most asian grocery stores). One day when I was suffering from a nasty cold, Lilli made me a sweet soup, made only with rapadura sugar and boiled white fungus, blended into a smooth consistency. As I scooped my spoon through the bowl I noticed its jelly-like texture and thought of what a wonderful ingredient it would be in ice cream. I was right, every icecream I add it to becomes thick and creamy, without setting too solidly or becoming icy. It acts in ice-cream in a similar way to gelatine.
I first decided to become a vegetarian when I was 14 years old. The hardest part at the time wasn’t going without chicken or steak. It was going without so many of the lollies, icreams, jellies, yogurts, custards and puddings that I loved, all of which contained gelatine. Gelatine is made of many of the by-products of the meat industry…bones, hoofs, skin, cartilage and horns…all boiled up in huge vats to create this very widely used thickening agent. It is also used in shampoos and cosmetics, jams, fruit snacks, salad dressings and canned goods. If you’re thinking of going vegetarian it can be a little daunting to find just how many packaged foods contain it. But what better reason to get in the kitchen and lovingly create your own healthful, simple, delicious, whole, vegetarian substitutes.
The other interesting and medicinal ingredient in this recipe is hibiscus flower. Both diuretic and soothing to the stomach, it has a beautiful, magenta colour and sweet but slightly tart, refreshing and uplifting flavour.
For the ice-cream…
- 5 large white fungus flowers, soaked and boiled in water until soft.
- 2 cups coconut milk (homemade if possible)
- 4 Tbsp maple syrup
- The inside of one vanilla bean
- 1 cup water
- 2 tsp dried hibiscus flowers (or hibiscus tea)
- 1 Tbsp maple syrup
Some of the most amazing coconut ice cream I ever experienced was during my travels in Thailand, where it is often served inside the shell of a young coconut, with the meat roughly shaved into the ice cream. To cup the cool shell of a young coconut in hot and sweaty hands, savouring the freshly made coconut ice cream (topped with sweetened corn, beans and chickpeas) with a bamboo spoon while standing on the side of the road of Thailand is sweet relief for a crazed traveller.
Inspired by this idea I served this ice cream one morning inside a young coconut…its sweet and oily meat, as well as the mango and lychees, all added to the experience. It was a dish that I found exceedingly difficult to photograph…not only because it melted almost instantly in our sticky summer warmth, but because it was just so insanely delicious that all other duties had to be instantly abandoned in the pursuit of eating it. All.