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The joys of artisanal ice-cream

There is a famous black-and-white photograph of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi from the 1970s, taken by the photographer Baldev Kapoor. Rajiv and Sonia were newly married, as Kapoor told The New York Times in an interview. But it was neither Rajiv’s high-waist trousers or Rowan Atkinson-like hair, nor Sonia’s knee-length dress or retro hair band that made the photograph special. It wasn’t even the fact that, like many young lovers in Delhi, they were enjoying a day at India Gate. The appeal of the picture, or rather the symbol of their young love, lay between their hands and their lips. Each held an ice-cream.

Ice-cream is a joyous little thing. To use an analogy, it is like love itself—tender and fragile, forever in a transient stage. It demands constant attention. Leave it unattended and not only is your shirt sleeve ruined, the ice-cream disappears forever too. You could go on and on about the romance of an ice-cream in a tropical Indian summer. But its charm lies not only in the consuming, but also, equally, in its making—especially when the making is artisanal and not industrial.

Yusuf Icecreamwala, 60 years old and wearing a white kurta and taqiyah (skullcap), audibly kisses the fingertips of his left hand. “Mango ice-cream,” he says, and kisses his fingers again. Standing in front of him is a middle-aged woman in a fluorescent green rida, a distinctively Bohra form of the burkha. “[But] I only want choco-chip,” she says. The bespectacled Icecreamwala says, “At least try the mango, my dear.”

The old man screams from his counter, “Mango ice-cream trial!” Instantly, a short man named Wali Badshah emerges from a door at the other end of the room. He carries a steel spoon, twisted from overuse, with a generous spoonful of ice-cream in a deep orange hue. “Isn’t this what they do—trial?” he asks the woman, as the contents of the entire spoon disappear into her mouth. Icecreamwala is referring to the practice of allowing clients to taste small quantities of different ice-cream flavours before they make their choice. The woman smiles and orders a pack of mango ice-cream, and one of choco-chip.

The establishment, Taj Ice Cream, is perhaps one of Bombay’s oldest ice-cream parlours. Believed to be at least 120 years old, it is located in a busy lane of Bhendi Bazaar. It was first started by Yusuf’s grandfather, Tayyab Ali Icecreamwala. It is currently run by Yusuf and his two elder brothers, Abbas and Hatim. What is striking about the establishment is not just its age, but the ice-cream itself. It is light and tastes abundantly of fruit. It is not uncommon to come across small chunks of the flavouring fruit itself. As Icecreamwala points out, all ice-cream served here—at least 100 kg of it is produced everyday during summer—is handmade. The ice-cream is made in a wood and copper contraption called the sancha. A wooden casket is filled with ice and salt, and at its centre is placed a copper cylinder with a handle. Milk and small chunks of fruits are churned in this cylinder for an hour or more, depending upon the quantity needed, to produce ice-cream.

In the room adjacent to the parlour, Wali Badshah is leaning over a sancha. It is a dark decrepit room with soot on its ceiling and cobwebs in the corners. Around Badshah lie old ramshackle sanchas, large freezers, a sack full of broken slabs of ice, and a large vat that can boil up to 200 litres of milk. He pours boiled milk mixed with sugar into the copper cylinder and tosses in the contents of a jar filled with tiny pieces of chopped mango. He churns this concoction at first with great effort, using both hands, but as the minutes pass, with increasing ease. Churning this mixture now with just two fingers of his right hand, he explains the process, sounding like a chemistry teacher explaining a law of the subject: “What churning does is create air in the mixture. This is important; otherwise the ice-cream will get frozen or crystallised.”

A native of Uttar Pradesh, Badshah sought employment with the Icecreamwalas 15 years ago. Earlier, Yusuf’s father and grandfather used to make the ice-cream themselves. But using a sancha to produce large amounts of ice-cream can be physically tiring, so the Icecreamwala brothers started employing workers. Badshah, who initially worked at the Icecreamwalas’ home before being shifted to the parlour, says, “When I first visited the place, the first thought that occurred to me was, ‘What?’ I always imagined that they sold ice-cream, not made it. But since then I have come to enjoy this job. One thing is absolutely true—people who come here don’t just come to eat or quench their thirst. They come because they really love what we make.” The Icecreamwalas claim that over the years, their clients have included actor Rajesh Khanna, singer Pankaj Udhas, producer-director Ismail Merchant and chef Anthony Bourdain.

Ice-cream does not appear difficult to make. All you need to deal with, after all, is milk, sugar and fruit, or chocolate, or whatever else you want to flavour it with. But as Renuka Nadkarni, a food blogger and public relations professional who frequently makes ice-cream for home consumption, points out, “You can do certain things to get the flavour right. And you can do certain things to get the texture right. But to get both right is another matter altogether.”

Nadkarni, who moved to Mumbai from Bangalore late last year after getting married, fondly remembers afternoons during her childhood when her mother and grandmother prepared ice-cream. “We, my sister, cousins and me, would be creating a din at home. And when word of ice-cream being prepared would spread, we would all land up at the kitchen door expectantly,” she says. Nadkarni’s mother and grandmother did not use a sancha or any type of ice-cream maker. Milk, sugar and fruit pieces would simply be blended together and kept in the deep freeze. “The ice-cream was tasty but frozen like ice cubes,” she says.

Over the years, Nadkarni has tackled a variety of dishes, which she describes on her food blog Pinch of Salt. A couple of years ago, her friends suggested she try to make ice-cream. She tried out a variety of recipes, but because she too did not use a machine or a churner, she found little success. She started to google recipes and created an entire folder just for ice-cream recipes in her email inbox. None of them worked. That is, until she chanced upon the properties of vodka.

“Most of the ingredients I use, for instance strawberries, have a lot of water content. But vodka does not freeze as easily as water. And when you add this to your mixture, the ice-cream takes up this property,” Nadkarni says. Her first attempt with vodka, a banana-chocolate flavour, turned out so well that her mother and grandmother were lost for words. “They both took me aside and said, ‘But this one is not like ice’,” she recalls. Both are teetotallers and were apparently aghast at learning that she had used vodka. After banana-chocolate, mango and chikoo followed, and today she claims she can make any type of ice-cream. Apart from vodka, she also often uses bananas and apricots, which have a similar anti-freeze quality. In the past few years, the homemade ice-cream made by a particular Gujarati housewife of Napean Sea Road has become quite popular. While Bina Doshi initially only prepared kesar pista and sitaphal ice-cream for her family, she now makes around 20 different flavours. She says, “You can cook a number of dishes, and you can be an expert at every one of them, but nothing quite impresses an individual as endlessly as homemade ice-cream. It is always, ‘Wow! She makes her own ice-cream’.” Doshi learnt how to make ice-cream from her sister-in-law, when her two sons were studying abroad. After her friends insisted, Doshi started selling ice-cream on order. She uses a motorised sancha and currently runs a small workshop with two workers and a deliveryman at Hughes Road. But making ice-cream, Doshi says, isn’t for the fainthearted. “It is fun, yes. But you need patience and technique.”

Doshi and Nadkarni point out that homemade ice-cream is always fresher and more nutritious because it doesn’t have preservatives. Nadkarni adds, “You will know exactly how mango ice-cream from a certain store will taste. You can never say that about homemade ice-cream. If the mango is sour, it will taste sour. If it is sweet, the ice-cream will be sweet.” Doshi also says that, being an independent ice-cream maker, she has the freedom to make flavours that are experimental. Some of the flavours she occasionally churns out are popcorn, lemongrass and paan choco-chips.