Simple & Sweet: Ice or Rice Expands After Success at Night Market Cleveland
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Originally conceived to bring homemade Asian comfort food to Clevelanders, founder Andy Ng and his wife Jessie have expanded their initial business plan to include education and outreach since their opening day in 2015 at August’s Night Market Cleveland. “If Night Market Cleveland didn’t exist, neither would Ice or Rice. It was because they encouraged local business startups with no application fee and included tables, tents, and electricity, that when I attended the July 2015 NMCLE I knew I had to give it a try,” Ng says.
Photograph by Breanna Kulkin
“I’ve always loved cooking and I had been preparing lunch for my office for the past couple of years,” the self-taught chef attests. “My wife thought I was crazy, but she supported me in my pursuit and we met with Brendan and Josh. If nothing else, we thought it would be a cool experience and the potential losses would be minimal. It ended up being a lot of fun and the response was very positive.” It wasn’t long until everyone was talking about the new vendor with a catchy name at NMCLE.
Photograph by Breanna Kulkin
Ice or Rice began their foray into Asian comfort food with onigiri (o-NI-gi-ri). It’s a small Japanese rice snack that at it’s most basic contains steamed white rice inside of crispy roasted seaweed. In Japan, most are prepackaged and have added ingredients ranging from sesame seeds and bacon to salmon, tuna, or shrimp. Ice or Rice currently offers spicy tuna, teriyaki salmon, and shiitake mushroom on their NMCLE menu. They also offer inarizushi, sushi rice steamed and stuffed in fried tofu skin or aburaage that has been marinated in a sweet soy-based sauce.
Photograph by Nicole Matthews
“We originally served bing soo with various toppings, gyudon (Japanese beef and onion rice bowls), and iced oolong tea. At every event we’ve had since, we’ve changed up our menu to include many of our favorite street foods and home style comfort foods including kakigori or Japanese shaved ice with fruit syrups, Hong Kong bubble waffles, Spam musubi, yakisoba (Japanese stir fried noodles), and drinks like matcha bubble tea and mango lassi, both made with real ingredients and not from artificial syrups or powders,” Ng lists from past menus.
For 2017 they’ve expanded the menu to include the “Okonomi Dog” a new fusion item inspired by traditional okonomiyaki; meaning “grill what you like” in Japanese, it’s a flour and cabbage-based pancake already on their menu. They’ll top an all beef hot dog with sweet and savory sauce, mayo, powdered seaweed, and bonito flakes and serve it up on a fluffy white bun. They’ve also expanded their repertoire to include yet another cultural concoction, Hawaiian comfort food “Loco Moco”, a white rice topped hamburger patty complete with a fried egg and brown gravy.
Photograph courtesy of Ice or Rice
Their blog has been an invaluable tool in not only raising awareness about the brand, but it has become a virtual cookbook devoted to demystifying and sharing their favorite recipes. Red Braised Pork Belly or Hong Shao Rou, Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs, Red Thai Curry, Sesame Crusted Tuna, and Pineapple Fried Rice: the stories, instructions, and photos of each meal are accessible to people around the world via the Internet.
They’ve also developed a YouTube channel with easily digestible video content that outlines technique behind preparing highlighted dishes. The minute long tutorials made already have 4k views and counting. Ice or Rice has harnessed some powerful free social media tools to increase their visibility without having a brick and mortar location, though they hope to expand to a café or food buggy concept in the future.
“The recipes and videos are my wife’s passion project. She’s the one doing all the work with me helping cook and write the scripts. She wanted Ice or Rice to grow beyond just a few events during the summer. Instead of sharing a few of the foods we love at the local level a couple times a month, we are sharing our knowledge of all the foods we love with everyone willing to listen year round,” elaborates Ng. “We also want to leverage this platform to share more Asian custom and culture with a western audience.”
NMCLE inspired Jessie, originally from Guangzhou China, to reverse the cultural exchange by starting another channel on Youku, the Chinese version of the popular video sharing website, that focuses on instructing viewers how to cook American foods. “I actually like cooking many different types of food,” says Andy Ng. “The lunches I made for my office would be from different parts of the world. Jessie noticed that Youku didn’t have many good cooking videos showing how to cook traditional western dishes. We decided to produce videos to share our love of western dishes with the Chinese world just like we are sharing our love of Asian dishes with Cleveland. We already have a couple videos up that can also be found on our channel Western Cooking with Andy.”
The Ng’s are in the works to begin offering Asian supermarket tours in hopes of making identifying imported products easy to understand for people from any background. “The tasting would include things like my favorite snacks, items from the frozen section, and all the different types of produce. I would like them to taste different types of fruits that are available like dragon fruit, longan, lychee, jack fruit, star fruit, mangosteen and of course durian!”
In the past Ng has gotten great feedback from NEO Foodies, a closed Facebook group showcasing Northeast Ohio’s diverse food scene while uniting adventurous and educated eaters. When Ng wanted to get feedback on a tonkotsu ramen that he’d spent three months developing he was able to organize private tastings through the group. However, Ng says that it was also the collective’s feedback on durian that inspired the Asian grocery tour.
Photograph courtesy of Ice or Rice
“I want to help break down stereotypes and prejudices with my food and stories. Someone posted an article about durian and there were a ton of responses about how disgusting it was; how bad it smelled and tasted. Yet almost none of the people that responded had ever tried it! They were just basing it on what they saw on TV. They were making judgments based on what they’d heard and not on personal experiences. It’s my third most favorite fruit! Yes, I rank my food,” he laughs. “So I decided to ask if anyone would be interested in learning more about all the great things that were available in the Asiatown markets.”
In between Night Markets, Ice or Rice has been keeping busy hosting cooking classes at the Western Reserve School of Cooking, presenting cooking demos at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a part of their Global Kitchen exhibit, making ramen with Kitchen 216 students, and selling food at Great Northern Mall as a part of their Lunar New Year Celebration this past February. They plan to participate at the Cleveland Asian Festival, and return to NMCLE and The Cleveland Flea for 2017. The best way to keep updated on events and classes being offered to the public is via Facebook, while new content for their mouthwatering blog is being developed daily.