Ink on my Apron: A layered past
It is befitting that the much-loved falooda’s history is as layered as its appearance.
If there’s one deep-seated food philosophy most Indians seem to have no trouble coming to grips with, it is that there must be no element of fence-sitting when it comes to dessert. Falooda is the obvious nod to this way of life and it is not uncommon to see throngs lined up outside speciality ice cream parlours, entire families in tow, eager to swirl thin, long spoons through scoops of ice cream, dried fruit and vermicelli. It seems almost befitting then that this much-loved dessert’s history is as layered as its appearance.
My first brush with what I imagine to be an accurate recreation of Indian falooda’s inspiring predecessor was a takeaway bowl of a strange ice and noodle concoction that was thrust upon me by my sister. No stranger to my love for all things sweet, she had decided that I would be a worthy guinea pig for this rather odd concoction that had been stumbled upon at a hole-in-the-wall Iranian restaurant in Dubai. Best described as sorbet-like in texture, I dug my way through thin vermicelli strands and a semi-frozen sugar syrup with hints of perfumed rose water that were hard to miss. A smattering of ground pistachios cut through the cloying sweetness and there was a lemony tang that caught one off guard. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s like an odd falooda without the best bits. Am I eating ice? I feel like it needs some ice cream and milk to bring it all together.”
From my sister, I learned that I had just had my first taste of paloodeh, a traditional Iranian cold dessert thought to have inspired the much-loved Indian derivative falooda. Believed to have originated in Shiraz, where it also goes by the name of Shirazi faloodeh, the Indo-Persian Mughal kings are thought to have had this dessert in mind while creating the ice cream beverage falooda. A thin starch batter (made from potatoes, arrowroot maize or rice) is usually cooked and strained through a sieve to produce delicate glassy strings that are subsequently chilled in ice water. They are later combined with a sugar and rosewater syrup and allowed to cool until the syrup attains a half-frozen form. Pistachio, saffron, rosewater and honey are some of the bestselling variants of paloodeh. In a nod to their roots, Zoroastrian Iranis in India treat themselves to this dessert on Jamshedi Navroze.
In its best recognised Indian guise today, falooda still manages to cut a fine figure albeit in slightly different avatars across the country. As this indulgent dessert spread with every conquest of the Mughal empire, Muslim rulers paid homage to the dessert with their own regal adaptations, specifically in the erstwhile Hyderabad Deccan and Carnatic areas. The jelly-like concoction is said to have been a particular weakness of Mughal emperor Akbar’s son Jahangir and was made from strained boiled wheat that was stirred through with cream and fruit juice.
While it is hard to settle upon a definitive image when it comes to falooda, the most featured components include a scoop or two of ice cream; vermicelli noodles; black basil seeds that have been soaked in water and allowed to puff up lending a satisfying jelly chew, and rose syrup. Certain regions steep these ingredients in a rose milk bath, while others layer it in a sundaesque fashion and sprinkle with a generous smattering of dried fruit and nuts.
Interestingly, the influence has spilt over to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar where the dessert drink is an essential part of festivities and wedding celebrations. The idea of mixing milk, ice cream and fruit, however, is not unique. Halo halo, a traditional dessert from the Philippines has garnered a loyal global following by virtue of its palate-pleasing attributes. Evaporated milk, coconut and yam ice cream are layered with tropical fruit. Singapore – in yet another shining example of the coconut-can-do-no-wrong theory – churns out cendol where shaved ice is laid to rest in a sinful pool of coconut and condensed milk with a splash of palm sugar syrup drizzled over it. Following closely in cendol’s footsteps is not-so-distant Malaysian cousin ais/ice kacang where jelly, sweet corn, red beans and ice cream are added to the mix, teaching its Singaporean predecessor a thing or two.
Straying slightly further from strict falooda traditions, down south in India, is Madurai’s own take that goes by the comical name of jiljiljigarthanda that transliterates to the rough equivalent of “cool cool heart”. Sweetened milk is reduced down and then mixed with small pieces of agar-agar jelly, sarsaparilla syrup and ice cream. Some versions include rosewater and nuts, which are reminiscent of the original forerunner but jiljiljigarthanda definitely holds its own while championing the culinary traditions inherited from Arab and Muslim traders.
It is Mumbai, though, that has been instrumental in putting falooda on the global food map. In an ironic departure from its stately past, the dessert drink is churned out with mechanical precision and sold in plastic containers. Institutions such as Badshah Cold Drinks in Crawford Market (with its eleven iconic riffs on the classic), and Haji Ali Juice Centre (that has inspired many a “non-townie” to venture out of the “burbs” and make the midnight trek to this hotspot solely to get their rose falooda fix) have rightfully earned the dessert drink its status of a household name.
Jehan Nizar is a Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com.