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New Delhi: For nearly five hundred years, the Indians have been relaxing with Kulfi during the summer season. Legend has it that the frozen dessert was created to please Emperor Akbar and the recipe is mentioned in contemporary texts like Ain e Akbari and Akbarnama which describe a relay race led by expert riders to bring slabs of ice cream from Chur Chandra Dhaar in present-day Himachal. Pradesh to the imperial capitals – Delhi and Agra.

However, it seems more reasonable to agree with the idea that the coolant originated in Iran (aka Persia). The word Kulfi is of Persian origin and translates to a sealed/locked container. Kulfi is usually made by freezing condensed flavored milk in tightly sealed metal containers that are opened to serve it. Iranians are known to have mixed snow with sorbets and a myriad of fruit juices as early as the 6th century BCE.

Cold confectionery traveled west with the Greeks and Arabs and spawned the palate-cleansing sorbet. The Chinese inclined to claim priority of invention and creation of all things point to evidence of a kulfi-like dish that was enjoyed over five thousand years BCE. What is well documented is that Emperor Nero relished wine mixed with crushed ice/snow although his physicians did not approve of this practice. Later, a Medici princess took the recipe for fresh desserts with her to England from where the Quakers transported her to the New World.

American presidents like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin consumed it in large quantities and also served it to their guests. Although freezing is common in the preparation of ice cream, gelatos and kulfi, the differences are important. Kulfi is much denser because the milk used is not whipped to be pumped into the air. No stabilizers or preservatives etc. is not used. Nor can it be said that the “ice cream” made in a hand churned wooden bucket inspired him. Long before handcarts introduced firungee ice cream or ice cream parlors opened up in big cities, countless towns and cities had acquired a taste for kulfi.

Many cities in North India claim to have the best kulfi in the country. In Delhi, Kurhemal at Chawari Bazar is the oldest shop (established in 1906) specializing in kulfi and is famous for its fruit kulfis. The flesh of fruits like mangoes, pomegranates, guavas and apples are skillfully scooped out and filled with kulfi prepared with them. The fruit retains its original shape and appearance. Roshan di Kulfi in Karol Bag dates back to the early 1950s and is as famous for its kulfi as Chole-Bhature.

Madhu Kulfi in Agra offers both matka and tinka kulfi and, thanks to improved refrigeration and transportation, can now be enjoyed as far away as Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand. Kanpur’s Badnaam kulfi shamelessly brags about his addictive lure. Over the past few decades, India has seen turnover in the ice cream industry. Big international players have entered the market to swallow up local brands like Kwality. Mother Dairy Amul and Vadilal continue to defend Swadeshi territory.

There are many regional niche players. Parsi Dairy in Mumbai, Natural tonnage and Havemor are just a few. In Tamil Nadu, the legendary reputation of the Dasprakasha chain owes much to its ice cream. The world of kulfi is also changing. Many of them have taken up “manufacturing” (mass production in a factory) of popular kulfis and have dabbled in softies in a cone and even ice cream.

The younger generation is opening branches and focusing on exporting in India and to foreign countries. Many talented chefs focus on artisanal kulfi, experimenting with exotic ingredients like wasabi, green/blue tea, avocado and more. Some play with refreshing colors (shades of green, light pink and yellow matching them with flavors recommended in Ayurveda for their proven cooling properties – sandalwood, mint, khus and rose petals.

Others have gone the dairy-free vegan route. Health conscious people can opt for sugar-free kulfi. The presentation also changes. The frozen dessert doesn’t always appear on a bed of falooda (thick vermicelli) blushing pink after a generous splash of rooh-afja. Some lighter-than-air frothy confections like daulat ki chaat also known as nimish and makhan-malai, malaiyo previously available only in winter have reincarnated as a chilled dessert.

The lines of battle are clearly drawn. Will the ‘cool-cool, thandi-thandi’ kulfi take over the world or lose its distinct identity by imitating its distant western cousins? How will this cold war end? Certainly not with a thaw! In this case, the permafrost will tickle the client’s palate the most. Disclaimer: The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not reflect those of ANI.