Funn Fisher likes to experiment.
When I showed up at her shop, Secret Scoop Thai Gelato in Berkeley, she was testing new sorbet recipes. There was a blackberry with Singha, the Thai beer whose flavor reminded her of an ice cream shop in Bangkok that served alcohol-flavored ice cream. Then there was mango with Tajin, the Mexican chile-lime salt.
“In Thailand, I would dip fresh tamarind, green or ripe mangoes in chile, sugar and salt,” Fisher says. “Tajin reminds me of that flavor.”
No one goes to Secret Scoop for a traditional ice cream experience. That’s because Fisher creates flavors based on her childhood in Bangkok. Instead of chocolate, pistachio and salted caramel in her ice cream case, you’ll find chocolate-lemongrass gelato, soursop-ginger sorbet and salted tamarind sorbet. There are cones, but also fragrant pandan waffle bowls, an invention of Fisher’s, and the more traditional Thai ice cream accompaniment of sticky rice, served underneath a scoop of gelato or sorbet. Hers is flavored with sweet coconut milk and pandan leaves that tint it a bright green.
“When I was a kid, an ice cream tuk tuk (a tiny three-wheel rickshaw) would sell chocolate, strawberry and coconut ice cream, served inside of a bread bun with sticky rice and toppings like peanuts,” she says, referring to khanom pang ai tiim, a Thai ice tradition that is basically a sundae served in a bun, a literal ice cream sandwich.
Fisher prefers to sweeten her gelatos and sorbets with brown sugar instead of corn syrup, using as little as possible to keep it light. She even pasteurizes her own gelato base to control the sugar. That’s because she hates how her body feels after eating super sweet gelato or ice cream. “Customers should leave feeling happy,” she says, not weighed down with sugar. Since she lowers the sugar content, she keeps her sorbets scoopable by adding a mixture of dextrose and guar gum.
To test new mango sorbet recipes, Fisher made one with Tajin, one with chamoy (a sour, salty and sweet chile powder) and one plain, so we could taste the Tajin and chamoy in the sorbet and as a topping. Straight out of the ice cream machine, the mango was so creamy, I thought it had dairy (it didn’t). The best, she decided, was with Tajin in the sorbet, whose salt and subtle heat accentuate the mango’s fruity flavor.
It’s possible that her experimental style comes from her background, which is far from the world of food.
Fisher worked as an architect and university design instructor in Bangkok and Singapore before heading to UC Berkeley in 2008 for a degree in urban design. But job hunting during the recession was difficult, so she started working on more creative projects.
Secret Scoop Thai gelato founder Funn Fisher holds a gelato order at her shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Berkeley.
Secret Scoop Thai gelato founder Funn Fisher holds a gelato order...
After spending eight hours a day sending out resumes, she would need a break. So one day she tweaked some online recipes for gelato, adding Thai flavors and churning it in her tiny Cuisinart Ice Cream maker. After encouragement from friends, Fisher joined collective retailer Cortland Marketplace in 2010, and later San Francisco kitchen incubator La Cocina, which brought her to festivals. When she finally took the jump to a brick-and-mortar location in March of this year, it was completely self-funded.
Finding affordable Thai ingredients locally has been a struggle. She sources fruit like tamarind, soursop and passion fruit frozen from a restaurant supply store. Frozen pandan and extract come from 99 Ranch in Richmond and Roong Zing Zing, a Thai grocery in El Cerrito. Because Secret Scoop is such a small operation, Fisher also outsources her sticky rice to a local Thai restaurant, Sa-Wooei, using a recipe on which she and the chef collaborated.
Secret Scoop Thai gelato founder Funn Fisher holds a cone with a double scoop gelato order at her shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Berkeley.
Secret Scoop Thai gelato founder Funn Fisher holds a cone with a...
There are also occasional language barriers, such as negotiating things like insurance for the shop. “My husband (an American) has no problem getting insurance, but with my voice, it’s harder,” she says.
Then there is the fact that she is an Asian making a traditionally Western dessert. “Some people think I’m trying to change it, that it’s not sweet or creamy enough,” she says. Once, an Italian man came in just to tell her that Thai gelato isn’t as good as Italian. In Thailand, western ice cream and Italian gelato are incredibly popular, in addition to Thai traditions like fried ice cream rolls, khanom pang ai tiim and sticky rice.
But it’s been a slow process introducing Thai ice cream flavors and traditions to American customers. She ended up removing bread from the menu because customers said the bun made it heavy, but people are slowly becoming interested in the sticky rice. She also sells a variety of Thai toppings, including roasted coconut, jackfruit and lychee-coconut gel. Wanting to re-create her experience of eating fresh tamarind in Thailand, she recently introduced her own version of Mexican chamoy powder as a topping for her salted tamarind sorbet. The feedback has been positive, with some customers enjoying it on other flavors, like her roasted coconut gelato.
It typically takes Fisher four to five months to perfect a new gelato or sorbet recipe. But by the end of our cooking session, she was confident the mango with Tajin is ready to sell. “I have to be careful and have Americans taste it,” she says. “Thai people won’t notice the chile, but Americans might find it spicy.”
Secret Scoop: 1922 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Berkeley. (415) 939-2832 or www.secretscoopgelato.com. Monday - Thursday 1 p.m.-9.30 p.m. Friday - Sunday 12 p.m. - 9.30 p.m.
Leena Trivedi-Grenier is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter at @Leena_Eats. Email: [email protected]