Kulfi is a traditional frozen dessert in South Asia, sometimes referred to as “Indian ice cream.” It is popular in India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as the Middle East. It can be found in Indian restaurants around the world.
Kulfi is similar to ice cream in appearance but is denser and creamier. It is most similar to frozen custard desserts in North America and comes in a variety of flavors—but the most popular and traditional ones are pistachio, vanilla, mango, rose, cardamom, and saffron. It is often served on a stick but can also be eaten off a plate, leaf, or out of a cup.
The dessert likely originated in northern India (then under the Mughal Empire) in the 16th century. Traditional desserts already contained a condensed milk mixture to which the Mughals added pistachios and saffron, packed it into metal cones, and froze it using a slurry mixture of ice and salt. They then transported the dessert from the Himalayas to warmer parts of the empire—and kulfi was born. The word “kulfi” comes from the Persian word for a covered cup.
To prepare this delicious dessert, sweetened or flavored milk is cooked very slowly with constant stirring so the milk does not stick. It is cooked until it is thickened and its volume is reduced by half. This caramelizes the lactose and sugar, giving kulfi a distinct flavor.
The kulfi is then poured into molds and frozen in a vessel filled with salt and ice. The vessel is well insulated and both protects the kulfi from outside heat and slows the melting time of the ice. This slow freezing process means ice crystals do not form, giving kulfi a smooth, velvety texture. The dense texture of kulfi allows it to melt more slowly than Western ice cream.
Today, it is often made with heavy cream, evaporated milk, or sweetened condensed milk to hurry the cooking process along. You can even add a filler ingredient, such as bread crumbs or a paste made from water and cornstarch, to thicken the mixture faster, though it will not be as pure as traditional kulfi.
Many people make their own kulfi at home, either from scratch or from a mix from the Gits or Blue Bird brands. It is easy to find it fully prepared in stores as well. Some popular commercial brands in South Asia and the Middle East include Mother Dairy, Vadilal, and Igloo. Because it is still made in traditional metal cones by many people, kulfi is often a cone shape with a flat end, whether it is served on a stick or a plate. You can also find simple plastic molds in which to freeze homemade kulfi.
Kulfi is traditionally sold from street vendors called kulfiwalla’s who keep the treats frozen by keeping the molds submerged in a salt and ice mixture in their carts.
To learn how to make fresh kulfi at home, we recommend Veg Recipes of India’s tutorial.