Dan dan noodles, pineapple cake, and black sesame are staple flavors in Taiwanese cuisine. This winter, in observance of Lunar New Year, all three are taking on new identities as ice cream at Dear Bella Creamery, a plant-based ice cream shop in Los Angeles.
Taiwanese-American co-founders Alice Cherng and Belinda Wei, who are long-time vegans, became friends when Wei was working as a pastry chef at the vegan restaurant The Springs and sent a scoop of black sesame ice cream to Cherng’s table. The two later bonded over their shared immigrant experiences and passion for food.
“Since the beginning of our friendship, we always shared dreams of how we could change the vegan industry,” Wei says. In 2017, the two teamed up to launch a joint ice cream venture, with an emphasis on real, whole food ingredients. For Cherng and Wei, the release of three special Taiwanese flavors to honor Lunar New Year represents something of a full-circle moment.
One of Cherng’s favorite desserts is tang yuan, or glutinous rice dumplings. “Tang yuan come in a variety of flavors, but black sesame was always my favorite,” she says. “Its distinct flavor and nuttiness were the perfect filling.” During Cherng’s childhood, tang yuan were a staple on the Lunar New Year table, and now, she’s channeling that familiar aroma through one of America’s favorite sweet treats: ice cream.
In their black sesame creation, Cherng and Wei use finely ground toasted black sesame powder. “The secret is in the steep,” Wei explains. “Soaking the toasted black sesame powder in hot liquid extracts the black sesame flavor while softening the particles.” The result is a decadent ice cream that’s toasty and nutty with a mild sweetness.
Noodles are another significant dish in every new year celebration, as long noodles are believed to symbolize longevity. Dan dan noodles—a dish featuring a thick, spicy sauce made with minced pork, preserved vegetables, and chili oil— originate from Sichuan cuisine and have become popular throughout China and Taiwan. In a collaboration with Jing Gao, Dear Bella developed a special ice cream flavor that evokes the piquant flavors of dan dan noodles through Fly by Jing’s chili sauce.
“It was risky, but we just had to play with the idea,” says Wei. Though some patrons have been put off by the spicy aroma in an ice cream, many more have been intrigued. To make the flavor, Cherng and Wei swirl generous amounts of chili crisp oil into the ice cream as it's being extracted fresh from the machine. The peanut butter-scented base is infused with toasted sesame oil, gluten-free soy sauce, and vinegar, all ingredients that appear in dan dan noodles. The sweet, mellow peanut butter not only anchors the savory accents but also tempers the heat. Wei says that Chinese patrons often recognize the distinctive dan dan flavor immediately, with many closing their eyes in pleasure as they pinpoint the flavor to a dish they know and love.
For its pineapple cake ice cream, Dear Bella bakes vegan cakes from scratch, as the shop does for all its mix-ins. Though most Asian grocery stores in the U.S. carry multiple brands of the sweet snack, none are vegan. “The taste is undeniably buttery, flaky, soft, chewy, and delicate,” says Wei of the quintessential Taiwanese treat. In their plant-based version, she uses vegan butter to roast fresh pineapple, then blends the fruit into the ice cream base. Once the base is churned, she crumbles in chunks of pineapple cake—producing an elegant balance between butteriness and sweet tartness.
“Before my family immigrated to America, we celebrated Chinese New Year every year in Taiwan by having many gatherings, all filled to the brim with food, with friends and family,” Cherng says. “It was by far the biggest holiday in the country. With the recent rise in Asian hate, we want to proudly tell our stories through what we know best—ice cream.” The duo hopes these flavors will, in a small way, deepen patrons’ understanding and appreciation of Asian food and culture.
“I used to feel disconnected from my Taiwanese roots,” adds Wei, who is among the first generation in her family to be born and raised in the U.S. She recalls struggling to find a sense of belonging, and later to find her identity as a chef. “Reconnecting with my heritage through learning how to prepare traditional Taiwanese and Chinese food has been the most enriching experience. And now we have the opportunity to bring those stories to life through the flavors that we create at Dear Bella.”
This winter, Dear Bella is also debuting a Chinese New Year Celebration Kit, which includes three pints of these limited-edition flavors, as well as housemade red bean sauce and seasonal Chinese candies. They’re available for national delivery or pick-up from their Hollywood shop through February. “This kit is a representation of who we are as Chinese Americans,” says Cherng.