The Taste With Vir: All about real ice-cream and how to know the difference
Ice cream is one of my favourite dishes (and not just one of my favourite desserts). In fact, it is hard to find somebody who doesn’t like ice-cream; only those who like it less than they like other dishes.
One reason for the more or less universal popularity of ice-cream, I have always felt, is that the term refers not to a single dish, but to a whole family of dishes, each with its own fans.
Let’s get one obvious distinction out of the way. I have met people who say they like kulfi and ice-cream. I have no problem with kulfi, but it is not ice-cream.
The popularity of kulfi dates back to medieval times when refrigeration techniques had still to be invented. People flavoured milk and then either buried it deep under the ground in a cool place or surrounded it with ice. The low temperatures froze the milk, yielding a cold dessert which was much prized. There are many theories about the origins of kulfi but the most popular suggests that it was invented in the Middle East and brought to India from that region.
Many great gourmets will tell you how much they like kulfi and value its flavourings. They will brag about a guy in old Delhi who makes the best kulfi or – if they are from Mumbai --- will go into raptures about Parsi Dairy Kulfi. But, truth be told, all kulfi leaves me cold --- in more ways than one. I understand the importance of flavouring the milk but am singularly unimpressed by the texture of the final product. It strikes me as being hard and pointless.
I recognise that it is a frozen milk dessert made by people who had no access to technology. But we, on the other hand, do have access to technology. So why should we continue to like something that only tastes the way it does because it was made by people who did not know what a fridge was? For me, ice-cream is about texture, an area in which kulfi scores zero. If you like the flavours, then just drink the milk. Why bother with the final product?
Besides, how much technology do you really need to make ice-cream? In my grandfather’s house in Ahmedabad, they used sanchas, large wooden buckets with outside compartments which were stuffed with ice. You poured in the milk mixture into the bucket, the ice cooled it down and then you kept hand churning it till the milk turned into delicious ice-cream. It was not very high tech. But it more than did the job. (All Gujaratis of my generation secretly hanker after sancha made ice-cream. We have never been great kulfi fans.)
The problem faced by many Indians when it comes to ice-cream is that we have rarely been brought up on the good stuff. Most of us had no access to homemade ice-cream so we ate the commercial version which usually followed the British model of adding cheap vegetable (rather than dairy) fat to get the required creaminess. In much of the world (and perhaps in India too now; always check the labels and the packaging to see if the word ‘ice-cream’ is used), it is illegal to call this ice-cream. Hence the popularity of such gibberish terms as ‘frozen dessert’.
Years of eating this factory-made rubbish have dulled Indian palates so much that ice-cream manufacturers now brag, in their defence, that in blind tastings a majority of Indians can no longer tell the difference between real ice-cream and the vegetable oil products.
Well, of course, they can’t, you greedy little sods! You guys have successfully destroyed our palates by feeding us congealed vegetable fat over the years. It is nothing to be proud of.
I told somebody in the business a couple of years ago that the only commercial Indian ice-cream I liked was the Magnum with its thin layer of chocolate outside. He told me that the reason I enjoyed it was because it was imported from abroad and made with real (rather than vegetable fat) ice cream. I have no way of establishing whether this is true. But it could explain my liking for Magnums. (Or does it just remind me of the childhood thrills of cheap Chocobars to the extent that nostalgia overpowers my tastebuds?)
Though there are now artisanal brands and foreign companies that sell real ice-cream in the Indian market, most of us have never learned to look for the taste of a good (and real) ice-cream. Instead we have fallen back on a search for added flavours.
For even discerning Indian ice-cream lovers, it is the added fruit that matters. Mumbai’s Natural Ice cream became nationally famous in the 1990s mainly because people loved the fresh fruit flavours. Even today, talk to somebody who claims to love ice-cream or recommends a particular brand and you will discover that it is all about fruit flavours: “Real fresh mango, yaar!”
The same is true of manufacturers of Italian gelato in India. The difference between a gelato and an ice-cream is a tiresome technical distinction. All ice-cream has a certain amount of air-content, sometimes called over-run. Commercial ice-cream has more air than artisanal ice-cream for obvious reasons --- air is free so it helps keep costs down if you mix a lot into the ice-cream. But gelato is the one kind of ice-cream that has little room for air. All gelato should be denser than normal ice-cream. Somehow no gelato manufacturer talks about this. All you will get is lots of stuff about how the pistas are imported from Iran etc.
I am now convinced that a lot of people who say they like ice-cream only see it as a vehicle for conveying fruit and other flavours. The quality of the ice-cream itself --- which should be the point of the exercise — is hardly even mentioned.
I have nothing against such people. Except that I don’t think they really are ice-cream fans at all. They are fruit fans. So may be, at best, they are fans of desserts that belong to the larger ice cream family.
When I say that I like ice-cream, I have a very specific dish in mind. In my book, a real ice-cream depends on the quality of the custard (or crème anglaise if you want to get technical). This should be a rich mixture of milk and cream (ideally half milk, half cream) enriched with lots of egg yolks, sugar (not too much) and the flavouring of your choice (real vanilla --- not the synthetic crap that goes into so many commercial ice-creams --- is my favourite). Once the custard is ready it should go into an ice-cream machine (there is a vast variety available) to be turned into rich creamy ice cream, though such chefs as Heston Blumenthal will tell you that a scientific cooking agent like liquid nitrogen is even better than an ice-cream machine.
The ice-cream should be made in small batches because it must be consumed fresh. Keep the ice-cream overnight in the freezer and its texture will be spoiled; tiny ice crystals may form. It should be served cold, not frozen solid and it should be good enough to eat on its own, not as an accompaniment to a dessert or in desperate need of chocolate sauce or some other flavour booster.
It sounds simple enough but only one Indian pastry chef that I know used to do this regularly --- Rohit Sangwan of The Taj Land’s End in Mumbai. He has since moved to a hotel I never go to so I have no idea whether he is still making that same ice-cream but I imagine he is.
Other chefs say they have problems doing it this way. When I wrote about ice-cream in Rude Food many years ago, chefs complained to me about the egg problem. Nearly all foreign ice-cream is made with eggs. Indians don’t ask, don’t complain and eat it anyway when they are abroad. But put eggs in ice-cream in India and pure vegetarians will howl in protest .
Fair enough. But why not just tell people that the ice-cream contains eggs? No vegetarian complains if there is an omelette on the menu. Vegetarians who don’t eat egg just steer clear of such dishes. So, be honest. Tell your guests that the ice-cream is made with eggs and suggest that they eat kulfi if they have a problem. But no, most chefs will not do this.
The second problem is fat content. All good ice-cream is about fat. Good chefs know this. The great Vineet Bhatia had the idea of taking makhni sauce (from Butter Chicken) and putting it in an ice-cream machine because he recognised that a makhni sauce is full of fat. (His savoury makhni ice cream is now a modern classic.)
But Indian pastry chefs don’t understand fat. Even at the most expensive five star hotel restaurants, the so-called home-made ice-cream will taste thin and the taste will not linger on your tongue. Like good Indians, the chefs will point to the flavour they have added and forget that the ice-cream itself needs to be of a high quality.
And the third problem is laziness. Very few pastry chefs make fresh ice-cream. They make a batch, store it in the freezer and make the next lot only when it runs out. With each hour in the freezer, the quality of the ice-cream deteriorates.
So, the next time someone tells you that he or she just loves ice-cream, be a little sceptical. They may be talking about vegetable oil or about added flavours not about the ice-cream itself.
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