Beat The Heat With A Kulfi

Joydip Sur

Blame it on global warming if you may, but the summer this year has been rather cruel. Even while the early spell of monsoon has been lashing the city since late June, however, on the days when it doesn’t pour, it is as hot as summer. And this intense heat seems only bearable when you think of sparkling cool sherbets and ice cold but creamy kulfis – the indigenous ones which can even compete with a Baskin Robbins ice-cream in terms of sheer taste. Calcutta’s romance with kulfi is a tale which we must tell. Not its upper class cousin – served in large food-chains – but the roadside variety which shares space with phuchka, bhelpuri, coloured sherbets and icicles.

In a huge aluminum handi, several shining cones lie ensconced in powdered ice and salt. Though the aluminum cones look perfectly the same to us but like a mother who can distinguish between her identical twins, the kulfiwallah seldom falters in reaching out to that particular flavour his customers want. Each lid is tightly sealed with a paste of flour; the seller, wielding a spoon and with a deft but delicate turn of his wrist that would even put Virat Kohli to shame, brings out a perfectly shaped cone out of the mould. Some will like it diced on a bowl-shaped sal leaf, others with the falooda and even top it with rosy pink syrup. The kulfi tastes creamy, milky and cold with bits of cardamom. And even after slurping and licking away one is left holding the wooden spoon and lingering to the aftertaste, long after the contents have been devoured. No wonder, ‘Yeh dil mange more.’

Kulfi is a popular frozen dairy dessert, often described as the ‘traditional Indian ice-cream’. Its popularity spreads well beyond our national boundaries to neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and even the Middle East. As an age old tradition, kulfi is widely sold by street vendors (referred to as kulfiwallahs) apart from several food joints and confectioners (Haldirams, Tiwari, Gupta Brothers and so many others) spread across the length and breadth of Calcutta.

It is believed that kulfi was first made by freezing raabri (a popular Indian sweetmeat) in ice. During the reign of the Mughal Empire in India, the ice which was used for freezing the raabri was brought in from Hindu Kush to Delhi – quite a costly affair. Not surprisingly, for a long time the privileges of having kulfi were limited to royalty and aristocracy in India until modern day refrigeration technology reached South Asia.


Kulfi has similarities to ice-cream in appearance and taste, but is denser and creamier. It comes in various flavours, including cream (malai), raspberry, rose, mango, cardamom (elaichi), saffron (kesar or zafran) and pistachio being the more traditional flavours, as well as newer variations like apple, orange, strawberry, grape, chiku, sitaphal, peanut and avocado. Unlike the ice cream, kulfi is not whipped, resulting in a solid, dense frozen dessert that takes a long time to melt- hence the perfect treat during a hot day.

Traditionally, kulfi is prepared by evaporating milk by slow cooking and stirring it continuously so that the milk does not stick to the bottom of the vessel and burn. This is done until the volume of the milk is reduced by more than half and you get extremely thick milk. Sugar is added to the still-hot, condensed milk. Nuts like pistachio or almond and flavourings like saffron, rose water, kewra are added. With a touch of ingenuity, the mango-flavoured kulfi is often frozen in its peel and is a delight in terms both looks and taste.

The mix is then frozen in tightly sealed moulds that are then submerged in ice mixed with salt to speed up the freezing process. The ice and salt mix, along with its submerged kulfi moulds, is placed in earthen pots (known as matkas) that provide insulation from the external heat and slow down the melting of the ice. Kulfi prepared in this manner is hence also referred to as ‘matka kulfi’. Although the usual way to serve the kulfi is with a simple garnish of nuts, some vendors also top it with falooda (sweetened vermicelli rice noodles).

There are several factories in Calcutta (including one at Khidderpore) which produces this summer delight by thousands everyday. Once the kulfis are prepared and frozen, it is then distributed among the kulfiwallahs. From then on, they go their separate ways and try to sell their ware in various localities across the city. An interesting point to note is that most of the kulfiwallahs in Calcutta hail from villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 

“Business is good here as this place has gained popularity as a kulfi joint and is frequented by many customers each day,” says Kedar Nath who sells kulfis just off Theatre Road near Shibuji. “I manage to sell around 125 kulfis a day, while on weekends and holidays, the sales goes up to as much as 200”, he adds. Varieties like sitaphal, chiku, grapes, strawberry and kesar pista are on high demand. On inquiring about the steep pricing of certain variations, he remarks, “Making kulfi has always been an elaborate affair that requires large quantities of milk, sugar, ice and various nuts and flavourings. With the cost of essential ingredients increasing, it is impossible to bring down our rates.”

Since time immortal, it has remained a customary practice among many families to drive down to the Victoria Memorial with their kids, where bang opposite to the northern gate one can find several vendors selling mouth watering kulfis. Even today, it is a common sight to see people eagerly flocking around the kulfiwallah and the cheerful bhaiya, often tirelessly attending to the customers surrounding him, dishing out one kulfi after another.

A lot has changed since the days when apple and blackberry were merely fruits. But what has remained unchanged is our love for this rich and creamy summer delight which finds a place at everyone’s heart and palate. So forget your calorie worries and dig into your favourite variation of India’s own ice-cream.