17 Oct 2014


By Shar Levine

As part of the research for my new book, I happened to virtually meet Dr. Nancy Turner, a world-renowned ethnobotanist who teaches at the University of Victoria. Dr. Turner literally wrote the book on the Ethnobotany of the Aboriginal Peoples of British Columbia.

If you were ever lost in the woods in B.C. or stuck on a deserted island in the Pacific Northwest, you would want Dr. Turner by your side. She would be able to find enough foraged foods to keep you fed until help arrived. Not only would she be able to identify non-poisonous mushrooms for a meal, but she could also prepare a unique dessert --- soapberry whip, known by some as Indian Ice Cream.

Despite its common name, the treat does not contain cream, and it is not frozen. The dish is made using soapberries, a plant in the oleaster family. The soapberry or soopalallie (Shepherdia canadensis) is not like your usual blueberry, strawberry or raspberry. According to Turner, “It has a distinctive bitter flavour due to the presence of low levels of saponins.” Saponins are natural detergents. As a result, when the juice of the berry is whipped, it will foam, so it looks like beaten egg whites or whipped cream with an orangey-pink tinge.

Soapberries can be difficult to pick or harvest, and the best way to gather the fruit is to “beat around the bush.” No, really, put a cloth below the plant and tap the branches sharply. The ripe berries will fall off the branches and onto the cloth.

Once you have gathered about ¼ cup of ripe berries, put them in a very clean bowl. If there is any grease in the bowl, the berries will not whip. Crush the berries and then add cold water, at little at a time, beating the liquid with an old-fashioned rotary whisk or electric mixer until it is stiff and forms peaks. You will probably need about a cup (250 mL) of water, added slowly, to make a bowl of soapberry whip. The dessert will be quite tart, and Dr. Turner recommends using apple juice instead of water, or adding in sugar or other sweeteners after the mixture starts to stiffen.

Turner says, “Don’t be confused by the name. There is another dish that some people call ‘Eskimo’ ice cream made by warming fat then whipping it by hand with snow and berries as it cools into a soft mixture.” 

If you would like to try to make this treat, look for a shrub that is about 1-2 metres (3-6 feet) tall, with a grayish bark and small, oval, green leaves. The berries are found in clusters and will be orange or reddish and translucent when ripe. The leaves and stems are covered with brown scales. Male and female flowers grow on different bushes, so only the female bushes will produce berries. The plant grows in many places across Canada, but does not flourish in really wet areas. Before picking this fruit, make sure it is a soapberry and not any other berry that might be harmful.

This versatile berry is high in vitamin C and has been used by indigenous people to treat high blood pressure, flu and tuberculosis. Smearing the berries on acne and other skin conditions, as well as using the fruit as a skin cleanser, are among the other uses for soapberries. The roots, stems and bark of the plant were also used for other medicinal purposes.

Berries can be preserved using traditional jam recipes, or made into a puree to be used in drinks. They can also be dried and made into cakes for use in recipes throughout the year. If you are interested, here is a paper by Dr. Turner and Carla M. Burton, called “Soapberry: Unique Northwestern Foaming Fruit.”

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