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As you bite into an ice cream cone, remember that it started life as a jalebi!

Even if the Arabs did not invent ice cream, they sure as hell invented the ice cream cone

brunch Updated: Apr 15, 2017 21:08 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Ice Cream,Zalabia,Marco Polo
If there was no America, there would be no global ice cream market(Getty Images)

Who invented ice cream? Was it the Americans who did more than any other nation to popularise it? Was it the Italians who act as though it was all their idea? Was it the Chinese as Marco Polo is said to have claimed? Or was it the French who have unearthed some of the world’s oldest ice cream recipes in their archives?

Well, one thing is for certain; nobody is going to accuse the British of inventing ice cream. Within the ice cream industry globally, ‘British ice cream’ is something of an insult. This is because the British have perfected the art of making ‘ice cream’ without any cream – without any milk at all.

For decades, this has been the British ice cream industry’s dirty little secret. Cream and milk can be expensive, but the flavour in ice cream clings to the molecules of dairy fat so it’s a price ice-cream makers have to pay. But the Brits devised an economical way of creating the fat that goes into their ice cream. They used vegetable oil; tel from the kitchen!

Kulfi is still made in much the same sort of way today as the ancient Arab recipe books suggest ( Getty Images )

Yup. You read that right. Enormous quantities of British ice cream have no dairy fat at all. Instead, cheap vegetable fats (from palm oil, for instance) are added to the ice-cream mixture before it is frozen. The British public don’t seem to mind and this disgusting practice has been exported to every corner of their former empire. (Yes, in India, too. You may have read about the recent case involving Amul and Kwality Wall’s.)

The Arabs took sherbets to the West, where they became ‘sorbets’ in France and ‘granitas’ in Sicily ( iStock )

British laws are fairly lax about what constitutes real ice cream (even relatively expensive products made from real milk have vegetable oil added to them to increase the fat content). In any case, manufacturers now use the phrase ‘frozen dessert’, which – in taste terms – is one way of using 13 letters to describe a product when four would do. (Just call it ‘crap’.)

So, who did invent ice cream?

Well, it rather depends on what you call ice cream. If you use the term loosely, then the answer is clear, if a little surprising: Arabs.

The earliest sweets made from ice were the sherbets of the Middle East. The Arabs took them to the West, where they became ‘sorbets’ in France and ‘granitas’ in Sicily.

Zalabia (above) is an ancestor of our own jalebi (below) and made in roughly the same way, using maida, deep fried till crisp

These early ices did not use any milk. They are still made all over the world to the same basic recipes, over a thousand years later. You could argue that they don’t really count. After all, ice cream requires milk.

But even with frozen milk, the Arabs were ahead of the rest of the world. Ancient Arab recipe books suggest that in the Middle East, they would sweeten milk, thicken and reduce it by boiling, and then pour it into small clay pots. These pots would be buried underground with ice. Later, when they were removed, this frozen milk would be served as a dessert.

In 1921, Christian Nelson in Ohio invented the Choco Bar, and despite the idea taking on many shapes, it is still recognisably the product that Nelson created ( iStock )

This should sound familiar to us in India. We received the same recipes from visitors, traders and, let’s be honest, invaders from the Middle East, and eventually made them our own. Kulfi is still made in much the same sort of way today, though technology has made it easier to freeze the reduced milk mixture.

But is kulfi ice cream?

According to me, it isn’t. There are fairly technical definitions of ice cream (and kulfi does not meet any of those standards), but in layman’s terms, the distinction is simple enough. Ice cream should be creamy. It should not be hard. But kulfi is always hard. Its consistency is nothing like ice cream.

The difference lies in the churning. When you freeze milk, you don’t get ice cream. Unless you keep churning the milk during the freezing process, you never get the right texture. And the Arabs never quite understood the importance of churning.

But here’s an odd little fact: the ice cream cone was invented by an Arab.

And here’s something odder still: the Arab in question invented it in America.

In 1904, a massive World’s Fair was held in St Louis, Missouri. One of the stalls at this fair was run by a Syrian immigrant called Abe Doumar. In that pre-Trump era, it was okay to have emigrated to America from Syria, so Doumar played up his ethnicity and dressed in Arab clothing.

Each night, Doumar sold a Syrian snack called a zalabia, an ancestor of our own jalebi and made in roughly the same way, using maida, deep fried till crisp. Doumar had the bright idea of making a waffle-like zalabia and rolling it into a cone. He then ladled ice cream into the cone and invented what was described as a ‘Syrian ice cream sandwich’.

Marilyn Powell’s book Ice Cream: The Delicious History says that Syrian brothers Nick and Albert Kabbaz claim to have invented the zalabia cone

Doumar’s version is contested by others. As Marilyn Powell describes in her book, Ice Cream: The Delicious History, Syrian brothers Nick and Albert Kabbaz also claim to have invented the zalabia cone. In this version, the Kabbaz brothers made zalabias at a stand next to an ice-cream concession at the same World’s Fair. When the ice-cream guy ran out of cups, the Kabbaz brothers made him a zalabia cone to put the ice cream into.

I guess we will never know the truth. But some things are clear. One, the ice cream cone was invented at the St Louis World’s Fair. Two, it did not taste like today’s biscuity cone, but was actually made from jalebi (zalabia) batter. And three, it was generally regarded as an Arab-inspired dish.

So even if the Arabs did not invent ice cream, they sure as hell invented the ice cream cone!

As for the origins of the modern, churned, high-fat, frozen-milk dessert that we call ice cream, there are two real contenders: the French and the Italians.

American companies like Ben & Jerry’s have made ice cream hip

The trouble with Italian claims is that there is, sadly enough, a long tradition of liars and humbugs starting with Marco Polo. One version is that Marco Polo brought ice cream back to Venice from the court of Kublai Khan in China. (He also brought spaghetti, according to legend). Unfortunately, the Chinese had never heard of ice cream till many centuries later and there is lots of evidence to suggest that Polo never even got to China and made up all his stories. (By the way, during his lifetime, he was regarded as a liar and his travelogue was nicknamed Il Milione, because of the million lies it told.)

The Italians do make wonderful ice cream. But their gelato differs from modern ice cream because it is denser and less fatty. Italians like to claim that Catherine de’ Medici took the gelato recipe to France with her when she married the Duc d’Orleans in 1533. It is a good story but ice cream/ gelato was unknown in Italy in 1533, so there was no recipe that Catherine could have taken with her.

My money is on the French. The basis of all modern ice cream is what the French call a crème anglaise, which is basically a custard made from milk, eggs and sugar. If you churn and freeze a crème anglaise, you get ice cream. (That is why the old American name for ice cream was frozen custard.) All the evidence and the earliest recipes suggest that while the Arabs (and perhaps others) had frozen milk before, nobody had frozen a churned crème anglaise till the French began to do it.

But the reason ice cream is so popular throughout the world has nothing to do with the French. Almost every ice cream innovation you can think of over the last century-and-a-half occurred in America. In 1902, as we have seen, the cone was invented in St Louis. In 1921, a man called Christian Nelson in Ohio invented what we now call the Choco Bar. He created a thin chocolate covering that would cling to ice cream and called it an Eskimo pie. Since then, that idea has taken on many shapes (one version is the Magnum), but it is still recognisably the product that Nelson created.

American companies took ice cream to the Far East, they invented the “gourmet ice cream” (Häagen-Dazs was created in Manhattan in 1961), they perfected new flavours (cookies and cream, for instance) and they made ice cream hip (Ben & Jerry’s). If there was no America, there would be no global ice cream market.

But spare a thought for the Arabs. Even as the Middle East is convulsed by conflict today, let’s reflect on an era when its people taught the world how ice and sugar could live happily ever after. And each time you bite into a cone, remember that it started life as a jalebi!

From HT Brunch, April 16, 2017

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First Published: Apr 15, 2017 21:08 IST