Food Friday: Roving Ice Cream and Penguins on Wheels

Ice cream is pretty much second only to oxygen on my list of Things That Make Life Worth Living (and oxygen is only winning because I want to stay on its good side). I remember reading once that Boston consumes the most ice cream per capita out of any major metropolitan region in the U.S., and I see no reason to doubt this — given the proximity and availability of both Ben & Jerry’s and J.P. Licks, it’s only logical. When I was younger, it was perfectly normal to go get ice cream at Herrell’s (RIP!) in the dead of February winter. It is, in fact, still totally normal (except we have to go somewhere else. Stupid corporate takeovers of Harvard Square, etc.). What I’m saying here is that I have a cultural basis for my fundamental need for ice cream in my life and my stomach. It’s both nature and nurture.

waterfront delivery

The Crem Helado guy is so committed to his important task, he even ventures onto the beach.

Fortunately, the multitudinous ice cream carts of Colombia are here to satisfy my cravings. Granted, if I had to pick a winner in a battle of helado supremacy, Argentina would win over Colombia every time (I would fight someone for a Volta avellana y pistachio cone right now), but I’m here, and I can’t really complain. Sure, Colombia may not have Freddo, but Popsy isn’t half bad, there are a few gelato shops to be found here and there, and I’ve even spotted the holy grail of fro-yo in a few malls. But we’re not talking about brick-and-mortar shop here — this is all about indulging my laziness and letting the ice cream come to me.

It’s hard to go more than a few blocks without running into one of Bogotá’s ice-cream-cart pushers, especially on weekends. There are two fairly ubiquitous options when it comes to icy treats on wheel around here. The first, Crem Helado, arrives in a little square white cart, heralded by a ringing bell attached to the handle. This stuff is your basic ice cream truck-style fare, popsicles and creamy fruit-flavored treats. It’s not necessarily my favorite, but it’ll do in a pinch.

it's too hot here for penguins

BON ICE MAN!!!! Sans penguin, but still. You get the idea.

The better option, if you can take it, is the Bon Ice man (or woman. But usually it’s a man). These ones are easy to spot, as they’re always decked out in their bright blue uniforms, pushing either a bright blue cylindrical cooler or one shaped like a penguin. They sell frozen treats here, OUT OF A PENGUIN. I have been here for four months and I am still not over this. I will probably never get over it. Frankly, I never want to.

But not only is Bon Ice visually exciting — it’s also incredibly tasty, particularly if you ever had a childhood. Remember those Freeze Pops everyone used to eat all the time in the summer when we were kids (and, if you’re me and my friends, that you still keep in your basement freezer)? You know, the skinny sticks that are essentially just ice with sweet food coloring, and for some mysterious reason the blue ones are vastly superior to all other flavors and you always had to fight everyone else except that weird kid that liked the red ones better to get them? That’s Bon Ice, except it comes in flavors like mango and uva (grape), and costs about the equivalent of US 15 cents. Bon Ice vendors are somewhat less common than the Crem Helado dudes, and it is therefore totally appropriate to do what my friends and I do every time we spot one, which is to shriek “BON ICE MAN!” and dash toward him and/or the sacred penguin as quickly as possible. This will also probably never get old.

mmmm, sugar and ice

Medieval torture device? Paper shredder? Nope, just a raspado cart.

And then there’s raspado. Ohhhh, raspado, the Colombian version of Sno-Cones. Raspado is a bit harder to find around here — I haven’t had much luck locating a cart in Bogotá so far, but I’ve run into it on a few occasions in warmer climates. Raspado begins as a cup of shaved ice, which the vendor shaves off of a big frozen block right there in front of you, using a very cool and slightly steampunk-looking hand-cranked device. Once in the cup, your pile of ice is layered with various colorful flavor syrups that are no doubt full of food coloring and carcinogens, then drizzled with sugar or sweet condensed milk. Raspado has absolutely zero nutritional benefit, and it is awesomely delicious, especially on a sweltering hot day. Oh, and the most entertaining thing about it? Depending on which way you eat the stuff, the sweet liquid left at the bottom turns some kind of horrifying color, which is never the same as the color in your friend’s cup. So if you go left, it’ll be green; favor the right side, you’ll end up with a cup full of pink sugar water. Individual eating styles deserve unique colors!

Last but absolutely not least are the vendors: dudes (or sometimes ladies) who wander around with a cooler slung from their shoulder, selling what are basically creamy homemade popsicles for about 1,000 pesos (roughly 50 cents) in every flavor from coco to mandarina. These folks are usually found at high-volume events — I remember a particularly delicious mora ice cream I bought from one of these guys at an outdoor performance during the International Theater Festival here. About half of it ended up all over my hands, since it was actually sunny for once. Probably the best my hands have ever tasted, and worth every penny.

The point here is: In Colombia, they sell frozen treats out of a cooler shaped like a penguin. I dare your country to beat that. Go ahead, you won’t.