I admit, I don’t know much about the Mughal Empire from which this particular dish originates. In fact, the first thing that came to my head when I heard the name is, beyond knowing that it spanned much of what is now India (especially Northern India), the reference to it in the novel The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson! Which is hardly authoritative…
In the novel, which is a fantastic and highly recommended ‘alternative history’ where Europe never develops and instead history is traced through the rise of great empires in Asia (in particular, though there are also moments where these empires engage with the Haudenosaunee and the Maya in North America), one of the main characters arrives in the Mughal emperor’s court from elsewhere and is amazed at the luxuriousness of the courts and courtesans, the beauty and sophistication of the architecture, and the food! After arriving in Agra (the capital city of the empire) and tasting the spices and luxurious food, we’re told, “Food dominated his days and his thoughts.” This is a problem I can relate to!
In fact, the Mughal empire was one of the great, advanced Islamic empires of the 17th century that many of us are largely uneducated about in North America. Known as one of the Gunpowder Empires for their mastery of this new technology in warfare, they were architecturally, scientifically, economically, militarily, and diplomatically advanced. They played a central role in the spice trade, though the ‘golden age’ of the empire was about the time that their importance began to decline with the popularity of sailing routes that bypassed overland routes. But under Akbar (the emperor), the Mughal Empire and its golden age became known for encouraging religious diversity and tolerance “and the fusion of cultures this produced led to a flowering of science, art and literature.” And food. Always food.
There’s a lesson here, though: Good food, art, and literature are made when we encourage and support diversity. And this support needs to be more than merely ‘tolerance’ as this recent article argues; healthy societies need reciprocity to thrive: “In contrast to tolerance, reciprocity recognises that strong and dynamic societies are based on social and cultural exchange.”
Kulfi originates during this time of a thriving, diverse Mughal Empire and is now widespread throughout the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. It’s a dish that is similar to ice cream (though it’s not churned or whipped so it is denser) and often frozen in molds (the name comes from a Persian word meaning ‘covered cup’). Popular traditional flavors include cardamom, pistachio, saffron, and rose – the spices and indulgent flavors of the empire. Creamy, fragrant, icy and luxurious – what’s not to love here?!
To make this recipe I’ve used a popular ‘shortcut’ method of making the kulfi, which is traditionally made by boiling down and reducing the milk into a condensed form. This involves a long time over a stove, stirring constantly to make sure the milk doesn’t burn. There’s a reason so many recipes use the shortcut for a dish you want to eat in the heat of the summertime… Instead of boiling down the milk, the recipe uses condensed and evaporated milk to achieve a similar end result.
As for flavoring, I wanted to do both traditional and also a twist of something more local to me. There’s still spring rhubarb in the markets here and rhubarb goes really well with cardamom; strawberries are also in season and they go really well with rhubarb; and a sprinkling of pistachios on the outside ties it all together and adds some texture.
The kids loved these and us adults did too as they’re a more sophisticated and flavor-packed icy treat for eating outside on a hot day. They turned out terrifically and I’m looking forward to experimenting with some other flavour combinations soon!
Roasted Rhubarb Strawberry & Cardamom Kulfi with Pistachios
Using local spring fruit to put a twist on an icy treat!
- 1 pound rhubarb, chopped
- 1 cup strawberries
- 1 can condensed milk
- 1 can evaporated milk
- 1 cup half and half cream
- 6 cardamom pods, ground
- pistachios, chopped
Heat oven to 350F. Place chopped rhubarb in a roasting pan or sheet pan and roast in oven for approx. 15-20 min, until soft and browning around the edges.
Crush the cardamom pods and remove the inside seeds. Grind these in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
Combine condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream in a pot with the ground cardamom. Bring to a simmer and then turn off heat and let sit for 20min.
When rhubarb is done, add to blender with strawberries and puree.
Combine fruit puree with milk mixture and pour into popsicle molds, Dixie cups, shot glasses, or some other creative 'covered cup'. Put molds into the freezer until completely frozen.
When ready to serve, chop pistachios. Remove kulfi from the mold, give it a minute or two for the outside to soften a bit (otherwise it's too hard for the nuts to stick!), and then roll it in the chopped pistachios. They're ready to eat!
This is going to vary alot depending on how large your mould is, your freezer, etc but mine froze from warm in about three hours.