Sutheera Denprapa, owner and chef at Park Slope’s SkyIce, came to Brooklyn from her native Bangkok to study graphic design at Pratt. In a serendipitous twist for those blessed with the combination of a sweet tooth and adventurous palate, she found her creative focus shunted from theories of fonts and grids, to the kitchen, where a teenage hobby of making ice cream at home was transformed into a galvanizing obsession for making exotic, often Asian-inspired flavors like black sesame seaweed, durian, mixed vegetable, and mangosteen.
We stopped by to sample some of Sutheera’s creative sweets.
OK Sutheera, what should we have today?
Well, here at SkyIce we serve both traditional northern Thai food, and many sweet things as well. So, both savory and sweet. This all started with me making ice cream in Thai and Asian flavors, so I think maybe you can try something sweet, like our sweet sushi dessert.
Yes. [laughter.] I’m from Thailand, so I’m always interested in Asian ingredients and Asian flavors, and I like to create – to be creative and have fun making things. That’s what I love to do. This dish is of course inspired by Japanese sushi. Japanese culture and Thai culture are similar, and I like sushi and I like sweet things. So I wanted to come up with some kind of play on sweet sushi.
It’s pretty simple. We make these little sushi-type rolls with with lychee berry, kiwi, and strawberry rolled in Thai-style sweet, sticky coconut rice, and wrapped in rice paper wrappers like you see on Thai summer rolls. The idea is that it looks like sushi, but it’s actually something sweet. So, the lychee berry is white like a piece of white fish maybe like yellowtail or something, the strawberry is red like a piece of tuna, and the kiwi is green, like the cucumber you might see in a sushi roll like that.
It’s just kind of a fun thing, but tastes nice too. The sticky coconut rice is sweet in an earthy way, and the fruit, particularly the strawberry and kiwi are both sweet and tart, so it is sweet, but not just sugar sweet. It has a few different kinds of sweet flavor in each bite, from the coconut rice, the lychee berry, the kiwi and the strawberry. Even the rice paper has its own different kind of sweetness. I just tried to find something colorful and tasty and fun to eat. I think it came out beautiful.
We serve the ‘sushi’ with a little bowl of melted chocolate topped with a drop of our green tea ice cream, to remind you of soy sauce with wasabi, and with a couple of chocolate-covered Pocky sticks to remind you of chopsticks. Pocky are from Japan – they’re a very, very popular snack in Asia.
Oh, and then also on the dish is a scoop of our black sesame seaweed ice cream. That’s the kind of sweet and savory ice cream with Asian flavor that I really like to make. To make it we roast the sesame seeds until they have that nice toasted flavor and they turn black in color. Then we grind them into a powder. We also take some dry nori seaweed and crumble it and then mix the ground black sesame seed powder and the nori into an ice cream base. This way you get these very savory Asian kinds of flavors of the toasted sesame seed and the nori seaweed in a nice, sweet ice cream.
It’s maybe a little surprising to have all of those things together in an ice cream, but I think it’s good. I’ve always liked making different flavors of ice cream. I made mixed vegetable flavor ice cream for my daughter because she didn’t like eating vegetables. [laughter.] It sounds funny, but it was very good, so we put it on the menu. It’s a great way to get kids to eat things they don’t want to eat – make ice cream with it! [laughter.]
I just like to use some of those Asian flavors in our ice cream, because they’re things that I miss from home. I wanted to introduce people here to some of the things that we eat all the time in Thailand, these things that are good for you and have a different flavor than you typically find over here. And I think one of the best ways to introduce people to new flavors is through ice cream.
So we have durian ice cream. Durian is the king of fruit in Thailand. It tastes soooo good, but it’s very stinky, smells very strong, so sometimes people here are afraid to try it. We make ice cream with it so you don’t have to be scared. [laughter.] We make a mangosteen flavor ice cream. Mangosteen is another very, very popular fruit in Asia. It’s totally different than a mango. It’s white inside, with a purple shell outside. It’s very sweet and a little tangy. A little while ago we started making a pandanus leaf ice cream. Pandanus is something we often use in Thai cooking. It’s very fragrant, like grass. So we thought, why not make a pandanus leaf ice cream? So we did.
So Sutheera, how did you end up here in Brooklyn, with your own combined northern Thai restaurant and ice cream shop?
I’m from Bangkok. I grew up there. I never thought that I would make ice cream and cook for a job, but I have always loved ice cream. I made ice cream for the first time when I was fifteen years old, at home.
I came to New York to study. I just wanted to see some new places and learn something to get a job in the future. I went to Pratt to study graphic design. I love design and being creative, and I really liked studying that. While I was in school, I got a job working at a Thai restaurant in Cobble Hill, just to support myself during my studies. Once I got a look at how the restaurant and food business worked, I thought, “Hmmm, I kind of like this. Maybe I can do this.”
One day one of my good friends came over to my apartment. We were having some of the ice cream I had made that day and drinking some Thai iced tea. We said, “Ahhh, Thai tea is so delicious! Why does no one make Thai tea ice cream?” Then I said, “I’ll make some.” That was the first SkyIce flavor I made. It took me six months to settle on the right recipe for that one. After that it was easy. I just kept making more. [laughter.]
Once I had a few flavors, I started selling the ice cream to some restaurants. It started wholesale, and after a while we thought, “Maybe we can open a store.” I have always loved northern Thai food too, and there were almost no restaurants in all New York City making northern Thai food. So then we thought, “Maybe we can be a restaurant too!”
SkyIce is located at 63 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of St. Mark’s, in Park Slope.
Photography by Heather Lipton Phelps. All rights reserved.