What if a spoonful of ice cream could stretch out like melted mozzarella on a pizza?
"Mess!" you think. Or perhaps, "Fun!"
Ice cream with an elastic texture is a treat around the Levant. In Ramallah, two shops – with intertwined histories — cater to Palestinian cravings.
Rukab's is the original. It opened in 1941 as a cafe in the same spot where it still stands. But 59-year-old Hassan Rukab, son of the founder, says his family's ice cream business was operating much earlier.
"Before that, my grandmother used to prepare the ice cream at home. And they used to sell the ice cream after school," he says.
Now, even at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday, people are already eating ice cream at Rukab's.
They say they love the taste and the presentation. And oh yes, the stretchiness. Servers can pull the colorful ice cream into taffy-like strands over a foot long.
"I don't know what is the secret behind the stretchy," says Aida Samara, who has stopped by with work friends. "But anyone who eats it likes this stretchy thing."
"It means good quality," declares Fatma Shinee, a young woman who lives in Ramallah.
"I especially like it like this," says Sami Tu'men, a businessman who lives an hour's drive north but makes it a point to stop at Rukab's whenever he is in Ramallah. Tu'meh says it reminds him of ice cream he had in Damascus, before the Syrian civil war.
But the origins of this type of ice cream likely lie in Turkey.
There it's called dondurma, and seems more sticky than stretchy in the many online videos of vendors teasing tourists. *
According to Mary Isin, author of Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts, the Turkish variety is traditionally beaten with long wooden paddles while it is freezing to increase the stretchy texture.
Ingredients play a role, too, in both elasticity and slower melt times. Salep (from the root of a wild orchid) and mastic gum (the dried sap of the mastic tree) are traditional ingredients that add elasticity to ice cream, says Max Falkowitz, the resident ice cream expert at Serious Eats.
Both are "hydrocolloids," he wrote in an email, "a class of chemical substances that form gels when immersed in water." Gelatin and pectin are perhaps more familiar hydrocolloids in American kitchens.
"Different hydrocolloids make different kinds of gels," he explained. "Mastic and salep, when mixed with fatty cream, milk, and sugar, happen to form chewy, gummy ones."
Ramallah's stretchy ice cream vendors both still use long paddles and some form of hydrocolloids to make their many flavors.
In the small factory of Baladna, workers use the paddles to push ice cream down as it whirls in modern Italian gelato machines.
"The stickiness is about the ingredients and about the way we freeze it," says Imad Mimseeh, a co-owner of Baladna. (At 23 years old, it's the newer of Ramallah's two stretchy ice cream shops.)
He won't tell his ingredients.
"Fresh milk, powdered milk, sugar, dextrose. And also some secret stuff," he laughs.
He does show me a box of mastic gum from Greece. Salep, he says, is very expensive.
Baladna and Rukab's share a bit of bad blood. Mimseeh's uncle — who has since passed away — started Baladna after decades of working at Rukab's. The shop owners' stories about what happened are different.
And they both — no surprise — say their ice cream is the best. The classic combination served in Ramallah is a six-flavor scoop including pistachio, Arabic gum, chocolate, pineapple, lemon and strawberry.
Both Rukab's and Baladna wrap up these combo cones for street vendors to hawk for less than a dollar.
Rukab's owner, Hassan Rukab, says he doesn't know why people like stretchy ice cream so much.
"They like stretchy cheese on the pizza. They like stretchy cheese on knafeh [a type of cheese pastry]," he says. "Stretchiness means flexibility." He laughs. "Which is good. That's what I think."
I did find one detractor – sort of. Mahmoud Shahin, 19, said when he eats elastic ice cream it feels like a struggle. "You're fighting your ice cream?" I asked. "Exactly," he laughed.
Well, he won, downing a dish of Rukab's coffee and caramel after coming into the shop just on a craving.
* Thanks to Anders of Ice Cream Nation for alerting me to that motherlode of videos.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, Labor Day has come and gone, but let's hang on to the sweetness of summer for just a little longer with a story about ice cream. This ice cream stretches, kind of like cheese on a pizza. Palestinians find this treat in the city of Ramallah in two rival shops. Here's NPR's Emily Harris.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: It's 10 a.m. on a weekday, and people are already eating ice cream at Rukab's, the original Ramallah stretchy ice cream shop.
AIDA SAMARA: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Aida Samara is here with work friends. She orders a dish of mixed flavors. She doesn't know what makes that stretchy texture she likes.
SAMARA: I don't know what is the secret behind the stretchy, but anyone eat it like this stretchy thing.
HARRIS: It is that stretch that's the favorite thing of one 5-year-old customer. Servers can pull the colorful ice cream into taffy-like strands over a foot long. Owner Hassan Rukab says stretch appeals to most everyone.
HASSAN RUKAB: They like stretchy cheese on the pizza. They like stretchy cheese in knafe.
HARRIS: Knafe is a super sweet dessert made of super stretchy cheese.
H. RUKAB: Stretchiness means flexibility (laughter), which is good. That's what I think.
HARRIS: Rukab's makes its ice cream in a small factory around the corner. Hassan's son, Jimmy, takes us to scrub up before entering.
OK, so we are all suited up. We're wearing white hats and coats and facemasks to go.
Jimmy Rukab shows the big stainless steel vats where the ice cream is pasteurized and homogenized, then chilled and whirled.
JIMMY RUKAB: Here's where they make it from liquid to ice cream. We still do it the old-fashioned way.
HARRIS: Well, sort of. Workers do use customary long-handled paddles to pack the ice cream down as it freezes in modern Italian gelato machines. Rukab says this method and certain ingredients help make the ice cream stretchy, like Arabic gum, basically tree sap.
J. RUKAB: Arabic gum, and you beat the air out, you get richer and smoother ice cream.
HARRIS: Stretchy ice cream has variants around the Middle East. The paddles hearken to the traditional Turkish method of beating the ice cream. Some recipes from the region call for salep, made from orchid root, to add elasticity. Ramallah has only two stretchy ice cream companies. A second, Baladna, was started by an ex-Rukab employee. Baladna co-owner Imad Mimseeh won't tell all the ingredients.
IMAD MIMSEEH: Fresh milk, powder milk, sugar and dextrose and also some secret stuff. And we use Arabic gum, also.
HARRIS: Which is also an ice cream flavor. Mimseeh says his most popular dish is a six-flavor combo - pistachio, Arabic gum, chocolate, pineapple, lemon and strawberry.
MIMSEEH: If you like sweet, sour and chocolate together, it will be nice. This is the traditional Ramallah ice cream.
HARRIS: Both Ramallah elastic ice cream makers dish up cones of this combination for street vendors to sell for about 75 cents each.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News, Ramallah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.