Holi is around the corner. And it’s time for thandai. It’s also time for kulfi. Spring is almost done and the door to summer has been opened. Daytime temperatures in many parts of the country are in their mid 30s (Celsius of course) and threaten every day to take off from the edge and soar into the sun. So thandai, kulfi and all other cooling concoctions are more than welcome.
Puranic accounts mention Holika as a farmers’ celebration of bountiful harvests and bonfire related to the story of Prahlad. This period also happens to be the culmination of the short Indian spring season, where a riot of flowers in pinks, reds, oranges and yellows festoon the country, and for this reason, Holi is also celebrated as Basant Utsav or spring festival. Lore and myth (depending on which part of the country you belong to) also mention Kama Deva or the Hindu God of Love being resurrected in spring, after being incinerated by Shiva. But for the most part, Holi is deeply connected to stories of a young Krishna and his dalliances.
Anyway, suffice to say that a major festival of North India, Holi is for the hedonist. There are all kinds of foods and drinks associated with this colourful carnival – different types of lip-smacking chaats, gujiyas or karanjis (crescents of fried dough stuffed with sweetened coconut or khoya, milk cooked down to its solids) and even mutton curry (cooked by some communities). Thandai and kulfi are a part of most festivities and parties.
What is thandai
Thandai is a milk-based drink flavoured with an aromatic, traditionally stone-ground paste or masala of blanched almonds and pistachios, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, aniseed, poppy seeds, melon seeds, dried rose petals and sometimes a few strands of saffron. Thandai comes from ‘thanda’ in Hindi meaning cold. All the ingredients in the drink are meant to cool the body and thandai is always served chilled in clay cups. The ground paste was mixed with chilled water and a thick ‘milk’ was extracted by squeezit it through muslin. This flavourful extract was then mixed with sugar and milk.
Food historians say that the drink as it is made today is probably a version that was popular among the Mughals. This explains the pistachios, rose petals and poppy seeds, which hark back to Persian cuisine. At some point this healthy, cool drink was spiked with bhang or cannabis, which was ground and added to the mix (this libation is rightly or wrongly attributed to Lord Shiva). Now, no Holi party is complete without bhang thandai. Holi is all about freestyle partying, playing with colour, eating, drinking lots of thandai and making merry.
What is kulfi
Since kulfi (Indian ice cream) is also a must for festivities, I decided to combine thandai with kulfi to make a deeply fragrant and creamy kulfi (sans the cannabis!). Kulfi-making normally involves patiently boiling down full-fat milk till it’s halved, flavouring it with ground cardamom and maybe saffron, adding nuts and raisins and freezing in cylindrical metal molds. A creamy texture is the hallmark of a great kulfi. The process of boiling down the milk is long and sometimes one just doesn’t have the time or the right quality of milk. I figure, an easier way is to use a mix of light cream and milk. This always yields a beautifully silky texture.
Why thandai and kulfi work together
To me, they seem like natural partners – both are milk based cold preparations and while kulfi is the base, thandai provides the flavour component. In this case, the natural oils and fats in the almonds and pistachios enhance the creaminess of the kulfi. The most important step is grinding the nuts and spices to a smooth, homogeneous, butter-like consistency. it’s actually very straightforward. If you can’t find dried rose petals, you can either leave it out completely or add a few drops of organic, natural rose water. The scent of rose water can get cloying if used in excess so it’s sensible to be frugal.
You can freeze the thandai kulfis in individual molds or if you can’t lay your hands on these, freeze them in a flat, metal container, a square cake tin would work I think. Just make sure to seal the tin tightly with cling wrap to stop that icy freezer air from getting in. Just take it out 5-7 minutes before you plate-up, cut it up into squares and serve, sprinkled with a few dried rose petals.
- Kulfi molds
- 150 ml full-fat milk
- 200 ml light cream
- 6-7 tsp sugar
- 8 almonds blanched and peeled
- 8 pistachios shelled and blanched
- 1 tsp white poppy seeds
- 10-12 melon seeds
- 1 tsp aniseed
- 5 black peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
- 3 green cardamoms skins removed
- A tiny piece nutmeg
- 1 tsp dried rose petals
- Soak the poppy seeds in a tablespoon of milk for 30 minutes. The grind all the nuts and spices with half a tsp of the rose petals to a fine paste using a couple of tablespoons of cold milk.
- In a saucepan, bring the milk and light cream to a boil and simmer (while stirring occasionally) for about 15 minutes till the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Add the sugar, stir to blend well and turn off the heat.
- Crush the remaining rose petals and swirl into the mixture.
- Cool the mixture and let the rose petals steep for 5-10 minutes before whisking in the thandai masala. Make sure there are no lumps.
- Let the kulfi mixture cool completely. Then pour into 6 kulfi molds, close the caps and freeze them in an upright position in the freezer for 3-4 hours.
- To serve, keep the mold out for 5 minutes, then slide a sharp knife around the inside edges of the molds to loosen the kulfis. Serve with a sprinkling of rose petals.