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Crazy for Kulfi

When it comes to the NYC restaurant Babu Ji’s version of kulfi, it’s like that old proverb: All good things come to those who wait.

According to Grub Street, chef and co-owner Jessi Singh makes the meanest rendition of Indian subcontinent’s answer to ice cream.

So what is kulfi? While it’s frequently lumped in with the ice cream masses because it’s a frozen dessert made from sweetened and flavored milk, air (or its absence) marks a key difference between the desserts. Ice cream is made by whipping air into a dairy base. Kulfi is not. Instead, milk (traditionally of the water buffalo variety) is cooked down as it is stirred continuously until it is greatly reduced in volume and thickened, and the lactose sugar is caramelized. This fudgy, thick, evaporated milk is traditionally flavored with saffron, betel leaf, mango, pistachio, cardamom, and rose, although in recent years Western varieties such as apple, strawberry, and avocado are becoming popular.

Next, comes the freezing. The evaporated milk is poured into metal cones and packed into an ice slurry. The dessert, in fact, takes its name from the Persian qufi, meaning “covered cup,” perhaps referring to the original containers used as molds.

The origins of the treat may date back as far as the Tang Dynasty (618–901 CE), but according to food historian and fellow sweet lover Michael Krondl, kulfi’s first recorded consumption in India occurs between the 16th and 18th centuries in the days of the Mughal Empire. In the royal kitchens, it was prepared using ice transported by boat, carriage, or foot from the Himalayas. One important technical innovation in enabling the kulfi craze? The discovery that saltpeter (a key component in gun powder) also has the ability to freeze water.

Although kulfi started out as a luxury item, over time it has has become an everyman’s dessert. In India, eponynmous street vendors called kulfiwalas hawk the frozen treat. You’ll find it in most Indian restaurants in this country and in supermarket aisles of Indian groceries.

Making kulfi outside of Asia does present a bit of a challenge because of the lack of access to water buffalo milk. India has the largest population of this mammal, whose milk differs from cow’s milk in a number of ways: It is higher in fat, possesses more calories and calcium, and also contains enzymes that keeps it fresh for longer than its bovine counterpart. All of these properties translate into creamier and thicker dairy products when buffalo milk is used.

So what do cooks in other parts of the world do when they want to satisfy their sweet tooth with kulfi? Some resort to using thickeners like arrowroot and corn starch; others combine evaporated milk and double cream with cow’s milk.

All right—what makes Babu Ji’s kulfi the kulfi to end all kulfis? He manipulates the cow’s milk through very slow cooking and freezing to achieve that enviable buffalo milk texture. It takes 5 to 6 hours to cook the milk to proper consistency. After bringing the honey, cardamom, and pistachio-flavored kulfi down to room temperature, he then freezes it for another 12 hours. After that, you can enjoy it for a mere $6. Stay tuned, as Singh is planning to introduce a clove-and-ginger-charred-chai kulfi as well as some fruit flavors.

Feature Photo Credit: “Kulfi Indian ice cream in plate, India” by Soumitra Pendse | Shutterstock

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.

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