Mango, Pista, Malai

The dessert is getting quirkier. In the growing universe of gelatos, vegan, low-sugar/no-sugar, artisanal ice creams, the syllables are adding up. You have everything from black sesame and honeycomb, blue cheese, lavender, basil to the Indian spinoffs gulab jamun, pani puri, puran poli and more. I’ll take the salted caramel and the fruit flavours most days, but on some you want to sample the past and go back to the classics. To the original, to the kulfi.

I’m heartbroken that it’s off the streets. Kulfi was popular in the royal kitchens. It was even more popular with kids once. Growing up, we didn’t have ice cream trucks, but we had the Kulfiwala, riding in the post lunch hour, ringing the bell so the kids could ransom the grandparents or parents for money beforehand. In rural Maharashtra, a slender stick of kulfi sold for Rs 1 and a chunky one for Rs 2. Oh, how inflation bites one! We would have doubles, running from one house to the other, making sad eyes to both set of grandparents. Somehow, it never occurred to us to give them a bite as well. We wolfed it down, and ran back to the playground.

In the city, an occasional night drive culminated at the Kulfiwala. Each of us got the trio – the mango, pista and malai – before returning home. Those were also the days before Konkan Railways added a stop near our native. So dropping off relatives to the bus stand and walking back home late at night meant you had earned a kulfi. Or it could be simply a hard day at work, a late arrival at home. It could be seeing someone off at the airport. The kulfiwala was there, waiting for the night owls. Like so many disappearing professions that once were popular, he has now disappeared into the night.

It’s not something restricted to Mumbai alone. In Delhi, I read, some kulfi carts would come with a roulette wheel. You had to drop a coin, spin the wheel and you won as many kulfis as the number it landed on. Of course, you had to give the Kulfiwala Rs 2 or Rs 5 to play in the first place. Now, wouldn’t that be fun? To kids and adults alike; discounting the early initiation into gambling for the former. The number kulfi has also lost its space and is increasingly hard to find.

Restaurants you could rely on earlier now serve a watered down version of just malai. Most of the tiny little ice cream shops that used to retail kulfi have shutdown due to loss of patrons. Of course, fast commerce brands have tried to appropriate the dessert. I’ve tried many, hoping to find one that tastes remotely like the original. There are but a handful flavours – malai, kesar pista and gulkand (for some reason) – on most menus. It’s hard to find the mango, the pista. If I’m not mistaken there was chikoo once, which wasn’t half bad. In desperation, I’ve tried to make them at home, both with ready to make packets and my own recipe, but I’m no where close.

I miss my kulfi. The only place where it still holds a position of prominence is Indian weddings. Going through the rigmarole of attending one for a dessert would be bonkers. So, I order some when the craving strikes, shake my head and wait to find the right one. Is there a food item you miss?

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