The summer heat is upon us with a vengeance and beckons me to write about the cooler delights on the desi menu, the ageless neembo pani (lime water) and kulfi, the desi ice cream.
My earliest memory of eating kulfi is at Shezan Ampis, opposite the Metropole Hotel, and Spinzer, near the Gol Masjid (round mosque) in Defense. To my readers in their 40s and 50s; these two restaurants may have been your parents hangout and surely you must have some joyous memories of visiting these two snacking joints as children, eating kulfi and sipping chilled neembo pani. Today, I hope to take you down memory lane to mutually relive the happy childhood tale of kulfi and neembo pani.
History stands witness to the fashionable Middle Eastern import to the subcontinent called sherbet. The Persian word was a reference to a beverage of sweetened, diluted fruit juice that was often cooled with snow.
The well-informed traveler, Ibne Battuta talks about an occasion in the 14th century Delhi, at the time of the Delhi Sultanate where large hollow vessels were filled with a sugar sweetened drink, flavoured with rose water and fruit juice, pineapple, coconut, mango, orange, lime, melons and the list goes on. He wrote, ‘They offer cups of gold, silver and glass, filled with sugar-water. They call it sherbert and drink it before eating.’
A few centuries later, when Babur and his descendants made the subcontinent home, these sherbet drinks were chilled before being served to royalty. A large amount of wealth and labour was invested to transport ice and snow to the royal palaces.
Abul Fazl, the vazir-e-khas (prime minister) to Akbar the great, and one of the nine original nawrathans (the nine jewels) mentions in the Akbarnama the tribulations of transporting snow and ice with the aid of boats, carriages and footmen; more than 500 miles from the Himalayan mountain to the royal abodes.
Interestingly the Mughals, in all their glory, power, knowledge and monumental progress stumbled upon the method of cooling water with the use of saltpeter. They discovered, to their ultimate delight, that if enough of this chemical was mixed into water it caused the water to ice and freeze.
This process of making ice and chilling beverages may have led to the making of the delicious kulfi; a rather delightful dessert certainly fit for kings and commoners.
Before the arrival of the flour or nut-based halvah in the subcontinent, the chefs local to the area were experts in making desserts with milk, sugar, cheese, honey, sugar syrup and jaggery. Travellers such as Battuta and Vasco da Gama were surprised at the abundance of sugar and milk in the region. Hence, we can rightly assume that the dense evaporated milk and sugar mixture used as the base ingredient for kulfi may have existed as a milky kheer (pudding) earlier on, and was frozen later, after the discovery of ice-making and then termed, kulfi.
A very prominent Indian food historian, K. T. Achaya believes that kulfi is a sweet from the 16th century. Research led him to believe that the original kulfi was a concoction of dense condensed milk, compounded with a whole lot of sugar, pistachios, green cardamoms and saffron; once frozen this dessert was referred to as kulfi.
The name comes from a Persian word qulfi; meaning a covered cup. Once this dense mixture was cooked down to the right consistency it was poured into small individual metal qulfi cups, sealed shut with a metal lid and put into large ice containers to freeze. Interestingly enough, the method to make kulfi and freezing it remains more or less the same; that is of course if one is craving kulfi made the authentic way. Needless to say, the professional kulfi manufacturers, and the ones making it at home, freeze it in a freezer.
Every home, café and restaurant offers neembo pani on their menu, and during the hot subcontinental summer there is nothing more refreshing and rehydrating than sweet lime water, mixed with a dash of sugar, salt, pepper and if one wants to really oomph it; then rosewater too.
The neembo pani recipe I share with you today comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Almost a year ago, the world renowned Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi opened a Roof Garden Installation at the MET, I happened to attend the opening night, where the beverage of choice was lime water.
The beverage is an inspiration from a neembo pani sherbet that was made in the kitchens of the Mughal kings, and needless to say, I asked for the recipe and the server graciously shared it with me, after checking with the kitchen of course.
The kulfi is my mother’s recipe, one she passed on to me years ago and I made for the first time while writing this blog. It’s simply put as indulgent as a mother’s love. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.
Kulfi (serves 6 to 8)
40 oz. full cream milk 6 oz. condensed milk 3 tsp sugar (optional), for a sweeter kulfi ¼ cup powder milk 10 to 12 green cardamoms (powdered in a coffee grinder) ¼ cup pistachios, (powdered in a coffee grinder)
Pour full cream milk, powder milk and condensed milk in a pan and let simmer, adding sugar if needed, and reducing to half the quantity. Pour reduced milk in blender to blend milk skin, adding pistachios and cardamoms.
Cool mixture at room temperature, once cooled off, pour in desired molds, seal with lid and freeze 6 to 8 hours. Your kulfi is ready to be devoured.
Neembo Pani (serves 4 to 6)
Chilled 48 oz. sparkling water
A dash of rosewater
A dash of rosewater essence
Fresh rose petals
Sugar to taste
Freshly squeezed lime juice, 4 oz. to 8oz. or to taste
Mix together in a large punch bowl, pour and serve.
-Photos by Fawad Ahmed