Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Call of the Kulfi

I have been suffering from a perverse toothache for the past two days but strangely enough, I have kulfi - a wonderful Indian icecreamy dessert - on my mind. With an apology to Ray Charles, I mentally hum,

"Kulfi! Kulfi!
No peace I find
Just this old sweet thought
Keeps kulfi on my mind."

Though I don't feel a tremendous tug for ice creams, kulfi is a different matter altogether. Kulfi is a creamy, icy concoction of milk that is slowly thickened with kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio) and elaichi (cardamom), churned and then frozen. It is generally served with a bland noodly affair (falooda) and sweetened rose essence. The home made versions are simpler and, in my view, no one could make better kulfi than my grandmother. Childhood memories tend to be intense and poignant, but I am convinced that I would still like her kulfi as much if I could get it today. It did not have any saffron, nor the accompaniments - it was just thick, creamy and cardamom flavoured with a sprinkling of almonds. I would wait until it was half melted before slurping it up and letting the cool liquid drizzle down my throat. Of course, kulfi then was strictly a summer food. However indulgent my grandmother was, seasonal routines were adhered to and only the searing heat would bring bowls of this dessert to our table.

After this childhood experience, I always felt that kulfis served in restaurants were just not up to the mark. Eventually we located an unfailingly good source - a vendor who would cycle into town every evening, with a large pot of home made kulfi tied to the carrier behind. He would stand in the Defence Colony market every summer with his young son. Now his son has taken over and business is so brisk that he comes every afternoon and stays until late - every day unfailingly except for one month a year when he returns to his village. He knows my father (a loyal customer) and always has a smile and a "Namaste Babuji," a greeting one rarely hears in the city any more. Sometimes he slices the kulfi into thick rounds and we eat standing on the pavement, at other times he packs the kulfi for us, showering it liberally with his home made crushed ice and salt mixture to keep it from melting. The falooda (an overly generous scoop) is packed separately in a neat little package. We know we should only eat half, but greed intervenes.

Somehow, it's the memory of the sweet itself along with thoughts of the affectionate indulgence with which it has been served that make this a very special dessert for me. Perhaps this is why I have been humming the song ("Georgia on my mind"), as memories of kulfi are so linked to memories of summertime and the old days and my grandmother -

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you


SM said...

how memories hang, untarnished, whole, on tastes, smells and sounds!

Sujata Varadarajan said...

It's true (and beautifully put). What is surprising is that sometimes our environment brings back a memory but sometimes memories emerge of their own accord from somewhere deep within, thoughts of people and places that one didn't know one had retained with such clarity.

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