In the heat and humidity of a Mumbai summer, looking for the fabled “best” ice cream is a happy, if tiring, task. The Taj Ice Cream, situated deep inside one of the many narrow, overcrowded lanes of Bhendi Bazaar’s Bohri Mohalla, is not easy to find, and can usually be reached only with the guidance of someone who knows the lay of the land. The shop is small and unpretentious and, to one who has never tasted the ice cream served here, it is hard to believe that people travel all the way from Ahmedabad and Jaipur just for a helping — or two. But, to one who has had the pleasure of spooning up cups of Taj’s ice cream, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is, as loyalists claim, the richest, true-est ice cream one is likely to find in Mumbai and, given the number of outlets that dot the city, that’s saying something.
“We don’t compare ourselves to any brands,” says Aamir Icecreamwala, 27, whose great-great-grandfather Valiji Jalaji Icecreamwala, a Kutchi entrepreneur, had set up shop in the bustling Bhendi Bazaar in 1887. In the early days, the shop would sell milk sweetened with dates, served cold in small earthen cups, says Icecreamwala, who now runs the shop along with his father, Hatim Icecreamwala. Although there is no record of when ice cream began to be made at the shop, it is believed to have been sometime in the early 20th century.
The first ice cream was a mixed fruit flavour, comprising pineapple, chikoo and grape. Besides the fruit, it included only milk and sugar. That basic recipe has remained unchanged, with only the fruits changing according to season — mango in April, followed by litchi in May, sitaphal (custard apple) once the rain starts and strawberry in the winter. The ice creams are still made by hand in sanchas, wooden barrels fitted with copper canisters on the inside. The result is an ice cream that has a rich, milky sweetness, elevated by the freshness of fruit. While sitaphal remains the most popular flavour with the shop’s patrons, there are many willing to try new flavours such as sweet melon, simply because they trust Taj to sell them only the best. “Some of our customers have been coming to us since they were children. Recently, a gentleman told me that he has been having our ice cream since it was Rs 5 per cup and that the quality has not changed at all,” says Icecreamwala.
One could argue that the story of ice cream in India is the story of small ventures like Taj Ice Cream, who brought the frozen dessert, once confined to the tables of the elite, within reach of the average Indian on the street. The brainfreeze-inducing mouthful of a kala khatta gola, the stickiness of a scoop of vanilla ice cream as it melts and runs down the cone onto one’s hands — these are a part of nearly every Indian’s experience of summer.
It is astonishing, then, to recall that until about 80 years ago, most Indians wouldn’t even have known what an ice cream is, much less tasted it. The history of ice cream in India is not a very long one, but, like so many of our other favourite foods — think biryani or pav bhaji or cake — it underlines our penchant for taking a foreign concept and making it completely our own.
Who discovered ice cream? And how did it travel the world? One of the most popular legends traces its origin to the court of the Roman emperor Nero, whose slaves brought snow from the mountains, which would then be combined with fruits and juices to create a sort of proto-ice cream. The most popular origin story is of Marco Polo “discovering” ice cream during his travels in China and bringing it to Italy in the 13th century. In the 16th century, the Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici married the future king of France, Henri II, and is believed to have taken the recipe to her new home. From there, it travelled to other European countries and the rest of the world. Many of these stories are probably not true; for instance, there is no evidence that Marco Polo “discovered” ice cream in China. Most historians dismiss this story.
There’s also little credence given to the tale about Catherine de Medici, since, at the time, refrigeration by mixing ice and salt was only known to a few scientists in Europe, and certainly not to chefs. It is accepted, though, that cultures across the world — from the Chinese to the Greeks to the Persians — regularly used ice or snow to chill drinks and food.
The first significant step towards the creation of ice cream probably came with the discovery that water is cooled when salts are dissolved in it. As noted by “ice-cream scientist” Chris Clarke, in his book, The Science of Ice Cream, this phenomenon was recorded in Arab texts from the 13th century. It was in West Asia that the earliest recipes for the sorbet (from the Persian word sharbat) emerged, and the technique travelled westwards, along the Silk Route, to Europe, where dairy products were first incorporated to create the earliest ice cream.
The knowledge of artificially cooling water and other liquids in order to freeze them also travelled eastwards towards India, where the prototype of what we now know as the kulfi most likely originated in the 13th-14th century. According to food historian Pushpesh Pant, the legend that the kulfi was invented for Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century is, in all likelihood, just that — a legend. “Most people believe that the kulfi was invented in Akbar’s court simply because it’s referred to in the Ain-i-Akbari. What is more likely is that the kulfi was refined by Akbar, and that it existed before in the courts of the Turko-Afghan rulers,” he says. If this is true, then it means that the sultans of Delhi were enjoying the sweet, cool pleasures of the proto-kulfi before Italian chefs had figured out how to artificially freeze liquids.
It’s not as if the concept of cold desserts was completely alien to Indian cooks. Pant points to the existence of the malaiyo of Benaras, for which milk is heated till it attains the consistency of clotted cream, before being layered into a kulhad and left to chill. There is also nimish (known as daulat ki chaat in Delhi), which is made with the foam that forms when milk is poured from a height, and garnished with saffron and slivers of pistachio. “Even something like the authentic mishti doi or shrikhand comes close to the idea of an Indian ice cream,” says Pant.
There is no doubt that the European-style ice cream came to India with the British, says Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Feasts and Fasts: The History of Food in India. Thanks to a labour-intensive churning process, the ice cream was lighter and airier than the dense kulfi, and helped the British cope with the punishing heat of the tropics. According to Pant, it is likely that the bawarchis employed at the dak bungalows were trained in making ice cream for their colonial masters. However, this period in the history of ice cream in India is hazy at best. Sen reports finding no recipes for ice creams in any of the 19th century memsahib cookbooks.
It is also not known exactly how the knowledge of making ice-cream in wooden sanchas moved out from the kitchens of the Indian and colonial elites. But in the first half of the early 20th century, homegrown Indian ice-cream shops had started coming up, mainly in western and northern India. Among these were Vadilal, which was founded by Vadilal Gandhi and which started out in 1926 as the Vadilal Soda Fountain in Ahmedabad; Dinshaw’s, which was set up in Nagpur in 1932 by brothers Dinshaw and Erachshaw Rana; Havmor, which was founded by Satish Chona in Karachi in 1944, before finding a new home in Ahmedabad after Partition; Kwality (now Kwality Walls), established in 1940 by PL Lamba in Delhi. As ice-cream-making machines were imported and electricity supply and refrigeration techniques improved in the post-Independence years, it became possible to take ice cream to the masses.
What is truly fascinating about Indian ice creams — taken in the broadest sense, to include chuskis, ice candies and kulfis — is that experimentation in techniques and flavours has been pushed as much by the smaller, standalone establishments as by the big, nationwide chains and high-end restaurants. They are supported by a customer base that is loyal to a fault and is willing to try anything once, such as the guava masala ice cream or the pani puri sorbet sold by Mumbai-based Apsara Ice Creams. Brand manager Kiran Shah reports that while flavours such as roasted almond and chocolate remain popular, many customers come especially for the “experimental” flavours.
Nowhere is the link between customer loyalty and the drive to innovate clearer than in Rajkot, home to nearly 250-300 local producers of ice cream, all of which thrive despite competition amongst themselves and with bigger brands.
Here, ice cream is an institution — one to which the residents pay faithful homage every day after the sun has set. Families troop out towards Race Course grounds, on one side of which are located many of the city’s most popular ice-cream parlours. They sit upon bedsheets spread on the lawn, have a picnic dinner, which is topped off by ice cream. All the while, servers flit back and forth between the ice-cream parlours and customers, carrying large cardboard menus and trays loaded with plastic cups of water.
With their blinking neon lights, air-conditioned interiors and large pictures of the most luscious-looking cups and cones, shops such as Maganlal Ice Cream, Nav Jivan Ice Cream, Santushti Shakes and More, Patel Ice Cream, Futura Snacks Bar, Dayzerts and Rajdeep Cold Drinks would lure even the most iron-willed calorie ascetic.
One of the most well-known of these shops is Patel Ice Cream, which was established in 1977. Since then, its flavours, ranging from the tried-and-tested kesar pista and kaju draksh to the riskier adu (ginger) and rose petal, have become a part of the city’s lore. Manishbhai Parvatbhai Patel, 50, who runs the shop along with his brother Ashokbhai, says they have never shied away from experimenting with flavours. That sometimes meant retracting failures like the orange-flavoured or mosambi-flavoured ice creams. “The competition here is fierce, because the people of Rajkot are very particular,” says Patel, placing a cup of rose petal ice cream before us. This was one of the biggest risks they took in 1994. “People have a problem with how cloyingly sweet rose syrup is. We were worried that they would associate our ice cream with that,” he says. But the flavour, made from rose petals, is a fragrant, delicate thing, only as sweet as it needs to be. Unsurprisingly, it is a best-seller.
Some experiments blur the lines between gourmet and street in their sophistication, such as the stuffed mango kulfi made by Delhi’s legendary Kuremal Mohanlal Kulfi Wale. Much like Mumbai’s Taj Ice Cream, this shop, too, is hard to find in the crowded Chawri Bazar. But also like Taj, the pay-off at the end of the journey is worth it. Its range of kulfis includes unusual flavours such as tamarind and falsa. The star is the stuffed mango kulfi, made by extracting the mango pulp and stone and filling the fruit with kulfi.
While this creation plays on the surprise and delight of the customer on slicing open the fruit, others, such as the Bombay Canteen’s Horlicks and badam kulfi, rely on the power of nostalgia. “Ice cream was the ultimate childhood treat, and Horlicks is something that many children grew up drinking, so when you combine the two, you make an emotional connection with the customer,” says Heena Punwani, consultant pastry chef at the Bombay Canteen. She says that ever since the ice cream was introduced on the restaurant’s menu, she’s had people ask her to use other childhood drinks like Complan in a similar way.
As our palates become increasingly global and international brands ply us with premium flavours, one of the biggest reasons why we keep going back to the same old places is this “emotional connection”, and the trust that comes with it. Whether we frequent the local purveyor of hand-churned ice cream or the kulfiwala in a crowded bazaar or the chuskiwala on the beach, we don’t just seek respite from the unforgiving weather. We seek to be transported to a time when a single bite or lick of our favourite cold treat was the ultimate indulgence.