From the BBC series ‘India on a Plate’, on Gujarat’s love affair with ice cream. Soutik Biswas on BBC, July 11, 2016.
Black pepper in ice cream, anyone?
What about making a ball of rich, nut-flecked ice cream and then wrapping a laddu – a popular sugary Indian sweet – around it?
If that doesn’t make you either crave or cringe, what about spiced ice cream tightly wrapped in a betel leaf – a digestive usually taken after meals – with a cherry on top and a silver foil as a frill? Or putting some fresh ginger or cardamom in your frozen treat?
“Anywhere else in the world, these may sound outrageous,” says food writer Marryam H Reshii. “But in Gujarat, these are the many eye-popping ingredients in ice creams that the state is famous for.”
Gujarat is India’s ice cream country. The state accounts for more than 12% of the country’s $1.3bn (£1bn) ice cream sales. Business is brisk for some 50 large and small ice cream makers.
Some of India’s oldest ice cream factories are based here.
Vadilal, one of the biggest factories with revenues of 8,000 million rupees ($120m), began delivering homemade ice creams in imported flasks to consumers in 1907. Havmor, the other prominent player in the ice cream game, was set up by an enterprising Punjabi refugee who opened a parlour in Karachi in 1944, fled to India after the bloody partition, and started making ice creams in Gujarat with some fellow refugees.
It helps that Gujaratis love eating sweets and innovating with food, that the summers in the state are long and hot, the milk is top quality (Gujarat is a dairy hub) and electricity is plentiful (aiding uninterrupted refrigeration for retailers).
Some like Rajesh Gandhi, chief of Vadilal, say that since alcohol is prohibited by law here, people reach out for ice creams and milk shakes instead.
Ice cream – unlike other traditional Indian sweets – is also the default dessert after a wholesome Gujarati meal. “Ice cream is one of the state’s overriding obsessions,” says Ms Reshii. “It occupies mind space in Gujarat that you won’t encounter elsewhere in India.”
In Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s main city, Ms Reshii discovered an astonishing variety of frozen delights: lychee ice cream with large chunks of fruit; rajbhog (a Bengali sweet) ice cream, a happy fusion of two desserts; and the “curiously named” dry fruit katri studded with industrial quantities of almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts.
Green tea ice cream
While Jamaica offers ice cream flavoured with with vodka and Japan can surprise you with seafood flavoured ice cream, predominantly vegetarian Gujarat is not far behind: you can get ice cream with grated cheese, peanuts, capsicum and green tea leaves here.
Craze for flavours
Ice creams are spiced up with cardamom and chilli flakes or flavour. Ginger is put in popsicles; and red chilli flakes in a vanilla mix. Ice creams are packed with imported nuts and chocolates.
They also put the sweet preserve of rose petals in ice cream. Another popular variant of the dessert is a silver foil topped ice cream made out of a traditional milk-based confectionary called barfi by stuffing it with a mouth-watering mix of choicest mango pulp, ice cream and sweet condensed milk.
Legend at Havmor has it that former US president Bill Clinton loved their mango barfi ice cream when he came visiting years ago.
For children there are lollies made of chocolate-based health drinks. In a state with a long history of prohibition, they have even tried to sell a whiskey-flavoured ice cream.
Some recipes work, others flop – the whiskey flavoured ice cream was a famous failure – but ice cream makers are undeterred.
“Nothing stops us from experimenting all the time,” says Ankit Chona, managing director of Havmor, which churns out 200,000 litres of ice cream in 160 flavours every day. Consumers are so demanding that his company offers out three new flavours every quarter.
Such is the craze that ice cream makers even hold flavour contests. Last year Havmor was swamped by more than 10,000 recipe suggestions when it tied up with a radio station and held a contest.
The vanilla and mango ‘Easter eggs’ are a favourite
They included some truly bizarre ones like pav bhaji – a thick vegetable curry usually prepared in butter and served with bread rolls – and chickpea-flavoured ice cream. The company picked up five of the more palatable recipes and sold them as new flavours. “Ice cream is part of the Gujarati culture,” says food writer Anil Mulchandani. “There’s always ice cream in the refrigerator, and it is a part of every family gathering and festival.”
No wonder then that ice cream making is a veritable cottage industry in Gujarat. There are more than 100 parlours in the main city of Ahmedabad, and some home-made ice creams are a rage.
Nearly three decades ago, homemaker Neruben Desai, began making ice creams out of her home after her husband lost his job. Today, the ageing couple sell some 80 litres of their hugely popular – “fresh and smooth,” says a customer – ice cream in 24 flavours every day from three freezers of a small porch in front of her nondescript home in a shaded lane.
Their home churned ice creams come in eclectic flavours – poppy seed and fennel, date and rose – and customers are offered free samples. When they open their home in the evening, the porch fills up in no time. “Both of us love ice creams. Our reputation has spread by word of mouth,” says Ms Desai. Not to be outdone, her sister-in-law, who lives next door, also sells her ice cream.
Or take Shankar Samnani, a school dropout who began with selling ice lollies on a cart in 1956 and graduated to making ice creams at home.
Today, his son, Arun and a bunch of workers make 20 delicious flavours out of a cramped 1,800 sq ft shed in the city, and sell them through party orders and home deliveries: Shankar’s “premium” ice cream has delivered to home parties hosted by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani and a host of Bollywood stars.
The brand’s only retail presence: a single vending cart in a crowded food bazaar in the city. At parties Mr Samnani and his son, Bhagyesh, set up colourful dessert counters for guests, offering smoke spewing liquid nitrogen and fresh cold stone ice creams. Workers are given English classes to deal with clients. “People here want new kinds of ice creams all the time,” says Mr Samnani. “They are crazy about it.”
There is little doubt about it. Visit the food bazaar in Law Garden in Ahmedabad around midnight and people are still milling around, looking for their favourite food or snack. Rows of plastic chairs under gaudy awnings wait for clients.
At the end of their meal, most people will flock to the ice cream shops. Then they will sit in the plastic chairs devouring their favourite flavours. “My days and nights are incomplete without ice cream,” says stock broker Tapan Patel. Not far away, a woman is feeding her pet Spitz vanilla ice cream. Life is good.
bbc.com – all pictures by Kannagi Khanna