recess radio program

8/11/04
Kulfi
    by Malini Roy

Imagine the parching heat of an Indian summer. The streets are nearly deserted except for a few stragglers, and idle shopkeepers stare grumpily into space. Amidst the flies and dust, you hear a musical wail of "Kulfi, kulfi" and the rumble of earthen pots-here comes the kulfiwallah. All of a sudden, the street turns alive with the whoops of children out to share a cooling treat-the "kulfi."

Kulfi is a frozen snack similar to ice-cream, but it is grainier than its counterpart, and is made of real fruit, saffron and pistachio, not essences or imitations. Unlike ice-cream, it lacks any hint of egg, out of respect for the beliefs of vegetarian Hindus. It is also a good dietary alternative to ice-cream, since it is less fattening.

Food historians say that kulfi was originally derived from Persian desserts, and was brought to India by the Moghul emperors. But the popularity of the snack soon spread beyond the tables of the rich and the famous. To this day it graces the parties of the elite as well as roadside eateries. Actually, it is rather mystifying how such a frozen dessert could develop and flourish in a tropical country like India. In this case, desire was the mother of invention. For Moghul royalty, kulfi was frozen by ice brought from the Himalayas. For the common man, till today, street vendors freeze kulfi on blocks of ice and keep it cool in earthen pots.

Of course, the kulfi exists today as something of an arcane delight, part of a dying tradition. But the roadside kulfiwallah and the individual restaurateur still brave it out against large corporations selling ice-cream. Government-funded research labs in India are investigating easier ways to make the dish at home. And throughout Indian neighborhoods worldwide, kulfi remains an unforgettable experience -- especially as the word is passed down through the delighted cries of new generations of children.

Copyright 2004 Malini Roy

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